The real significance of Kerala's – and India's – first water budget

While Kerala’s lush greenery suggests an abundance of water, the reality is that some parts of the state have been experiencing water scarcity during the summer
While Kerala’s lush greenery suggests an abundance of water, the reality is that some parts of the state have been experiencing water scarcity during the summer


  • Conducting water audits is essential to building resilience against climate change. Kerala’s pioneering water budget shows other states how to plan them

The government of Kerala has launched water budgets for 10% of the state’s village panchayats to audit water availability, measure usage patterns, and explore the scope for augmenting this dwindling resource. This is the first water budget in India, an initiative that other states must emulate.

The Kerala government’s plan is to extend the scheme to every panchayat. It has also rolled out a plan to use satellites to map the water resources of nine of the state’s 14 districts that abut the Western Ghats. No less than 44 rivers originate and flow through the state from these districts. Four of them flow eastwards to other states and the rest to the Arabian Sea. The Western Ghats (the Sahyaadri or Sahya mountain ranges, in local parlance) mark the eastern boundary of the state, separating it from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

While Kerala’s lush greenery practically round the year suggests an abundance of water (the state’s water availability is three times the national average, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan noted while launching the water budget), the reality is that some parts of the state have been experiencing water scarcity during the summer. The storied river Nila, also called Bharatappuzha, is little more than a broken rivulet during the peak summer months.

This prompted the government to launch a scheme called Haritha Keralam (Green Kerala) in 2016 to revive water bodies, reopen blocked water channels, and conserve water. A key part of the scheme is a campaign called ‘Ini nhan ozhukatte’ (let me now flow), which has, so far, revived 7,290 km of irrigation channels using voluntary labour and workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Kerala has decentralised governance, where clearly earmarked administrative, technical and financial powers, responsibilities and resources vest with local bodies. It has 87 municipal bodies with elected mayors and council chairmen. Areas outside the municipal zones in all 14 districts are governed by district panchayats. The state has 941 village panchayats, which are huge in comparison with the rest of India’s 650,000-odd panchayats. Between the district panchayat and the village panchayat, there are 152 block panchayats.

The blocks are a creation of the planning process devised by Nehru, in which each district is carved into several development blocks, each with its own plan targets, broken down into goals for individual panchayats that constitute each block. The government has proposed using this machinery to prepare water budgets for each panchayat and higher-level units.

While this is a commendable step, the panchayat-level approach may not be best suited for managing water resources. Water management requires comprehensive planning at the level of the river basin and possible interconnections between river basins. That calls for top-down planning, as well as implementation with popular participation.

Drainage is key in a state like Kerala, which has become vulnerable to cloudbursts and flash floods thanks to climate change. It stands to reason that the state’s water experts should take this into account and draw on the technical expertise of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM). The state’s water resources department should integrate the panchayat-level efforts with broader plans formulated on the basis of river basins.

Kerala probably has more than its fair share of limnologists (experts on non-oceanic aquatic resources), hydrologists, geologists, engineers and voluntary organisations, besides a culture of public activism. Therefore, the government’s initiative to manage water, which requires public participation and cooperation to succeed, could well work as intended. If so, it would serve as a model for other states to emulate.

Water management is likely to emerge as one of the challenges brought on by climate change. According to World Bank data, the per-capita availability of renewable internal freshwater resources in India was less than one-fifth the global average of 5,555 cubic metres in 2019. Low availability of water is compounded by erratic rains, floods and droughts. Heatwaves and forest fires are also symptoms of climate change, and require water to counter.

Harvesting rainwater, storing it and using it sparingly, and recycling it when possible — all of these require a clear audit of water resources. Kerala’s water budget is significant as it serves as an example of how to conduct such an audit, which is essential to building resilience against climate change.

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