NEW DELHI : More than 400 top government officials have spread out across the country to bolster efforts to battle one of the severest water crisis in decades, one of the officials involved with the exercise said.

Under the banner of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan water conservation campaign, as many as 446 director and deputy secretary level officers have been dispatched to 256 of the country’s most water-stressed districts, said the official requesting anonymity. These officials will serve as block nodal officers, assisted by more than 400 technical officers at 1,592 blocks.

According to documents reviewed by Mint, India’s most water-stressed blocks are in Tamil Nadu (541), followed by Rajasthan (218), Uttar Pradesh (139) and Telangana (137), with several states reeling under drought-like conditions.

With the slow progress of the crucial southwest monsoon and below-normal rains in June, water levels in reservoirs have fallen significantly. In its latest report, the Central Water Commission said water level in 92 major reservoirs was about 17% of their live storage capacity. The level is lower on year and also less than the average of the past decade.

Policy think-tank NITI Aayog said in areport that nearly 600 million Indians already face “high to extreme water stress." It said 21 cities including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people. Matters are only likely to worsen with the country’s water demand likely to double by 2030, indicating there will be a 6% loss in gross domestic product by 2050.

Government officials will focus on rainwater harvesting and water conservation in the first phase which runs till 15 September and carry out other initiatives including renovation of traditional water bodies and tanks, reuse of water and recharge structures, watershed development and intensive afforestation. The second phase starts on 1 October and will continue till 30 November.

The 446 officials in turn are being supervised by 256 additional secretary and joint secretary level officials who will be the central nodal officers or Central Prabhari Officers responsible for each of these 256 districts. While 313 blocks have been termed critical, there are 1,186 blocks which have been over-exploited for water. In addition, there are 94 blocks with limited ground water availability.

A similar mass mobilization of bureaucrats happened under the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Gram Swarajya Abhiyan to ensure that the masses have access to social welfare schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan.

The teams of officials will undertake at least three trips of three days each covering all the villages allocated to them. To encourage local participation, National Cadet Corps, National Service Scheme and Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan will be involved along with non government organisations (NGOs) and students from local engineering colleges.

Providing safe drinking water to all parts of the country remains a priority, said finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday as she announced the Jal Jeevan Mission to provide potable water to every rural household by 2024.

The programme will be monitored online with the help of an app created for the purpose and geo-tagging. It is being overseen by the new ministry of Jal Shakti, which will study the management of water resources and drinking water supply in a holistic manner. The ministry formed by integrated other existing ministries – Water Resources and Ministry of Drinking water and sanitation would work with state governments to ensure Har Ghar Jal to all rural households by 2024, said Sitharaman.

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