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FEATURE: India’s water challenges highlighted in new report

India has only 4 percent of global water resources, but 16 percent of the world’s population – which means it faces serious challenges in meeting water demand.  Despite India’s booming economy, 625 million people still defecate in the open.  In 2010 the country lost more than 600,000 children under 5 due to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) related diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.  The marginalized and poor are hardest hit, along with women upon whom falls the burden of fetching water over long distances.

A new report by the UN, Water in India – Situation and Prospects, takes a deeper look at the state of the water sector in India.  It attempts to consolidate the vast amounts of information available on the various aspects of water and sanitation in India and pull this together into a comprehensive overall report.   It also examines the steps needed to address the many challenges faced.  This is critical to promoting human development and economic growth in the country: Goldman Sachs put improving environmental sustainability of water and energy as one of the top ten interventions India needs to accelerate in order to reach its economic potential.

The report suggests workable solutions to tackle the current challenges.  The focus is on evolving an environment where water is available for all in a sustainable manner—safe drinking water for basic needs, adequate water for agriculture, water for industry and for the ecosystem.   There are five key messages in the report:

1. The per capita water availability does not take into account the temporal and spatial variability in a vast country like India – new approaches and ways to measure water availability are required;
2. Water demand is far exceeding supply in many instances and leading to inter-sectoral conflicts;
3. Water quality problems are rising and need to be addressed: sanitation is central to this also;
4. An analysis of the water sector is incomplete without understanding the key role gender plays – for this disaggregated data needs to be collected and analysed;
5. A regime of capacity-building programmes is required for those managing water in India today to deal with present day issues.

But the report is not all doom and gloom.  On the contrary, it presents several positive case studies which show change is possible.  A common thread through these is the active participation and involvement of communities in finding solutions, along with strong political will for change and focus on positive impact.

The report says issues can be tackled with a sharp and forward-looking vision for the governance of water.  There is a strong need for convergence of laws and legislations and synchronization between various departments dealing with water. Water has to be looked at from a more holistic and integrated perspective.  In addition, the data generation process must be done at an aggregate level for policy makers to be informed about the change processes and find sustainable solutions.  The report stresses that each stakeholder has a key role to play.

Commissioned by UNICEF and FAO India, Water in India – Situations and Prospects was prepared by the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, SaciWATERs, a policy research institute working on issues of integrated water resources management in South Asia.  As well as a thorough review of secondary data, the findings are backed by five regional consultations with key sector stakeholders.

The target audience includes policy framers, decision makers, implementers, academics and all involved and interested in the water sector in India.   The messages (underlined by evidence) can form the basis for advocacy for players in the sector such as multilaterals, NGOs, civil society and academia to take forward.  It is hoped that Government will act on these messages and positive impact will be seen at ground level.  It is also hoped that this report may become the first in a series of reports coming out at a regular intervals to ‘take stock’ of progress in addressing key gaps in the water sector.

You can download the full report from the UNICEF website, and view a photo essay.

 Anjal Prakash is Executive Director at SaciWATERs. He has worked extensively on the issues of ground water management, gender, natural resource management and water supply and sanitation in India.

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