Sustainable solutions are key to building a water-secure future

Sustainable solutions are key to building a water-secure future

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Story detail:
Date: 29th March 2022
Author: CDKN Asia
Type: Feature
Countries: Asia, India
Themes: Water
Tags: sustainable water management, water security, freshwater availability

Tikender Singh Panwar, former Deputy Mayor of Shimla city, Himachal Pradesh, India, joins CDKN as a guest blogger in celebration of the World Water Forum, which was held this month in Dakar, Senegal.

It is clear that the world is running out of fresh water, thanks to the unsustainable model of development followed over the last few decades. This is linked, too, with irreversible changes in the climate which create further water stress, and together these factors have also brought an existential crisis.

The normal cycles of nature have been disrupted by climate change and massive abuse of water systems across the globe. Many governments are abdicating their responsibility of protecting and conserving water systems, and are handing over their management to the private sector. However, this corporate control is a threat to people’s wellbeing.

Right or need

The United Nations has called for enhancing knowledge exchange and collaboration, thereby increasing awareness of the importance of groundwater conservation. Why is groundwater important? It provides 50 per cent of the drinking water worldwide, 40 per cent of the irrigation water for all agricultural activities, and 33 per cent of the total water required for industry. Groundwater plays an important role in sustaining ecosystems and in enabling human adaptation to climate variability and change. It is the major source of water in many cities around the world, including most of the Indian cities.

India has 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only 4 per cent of its water resources. It is, therefore, one of the most water-stressed nations in the world. Come summer, water becomes a commodity ‘as precious as gold’ in some Indian cities, according to a World Bank report. Indeed, it does, but the solutions that are offered are based on further commoditising of water, whivch alienates people further.

There is a debate about whether water is a right or a need. Advocates of private control over water – particularly those supporting the ‘Washington Consensus’ - a set of broadly free market economic ideas - term water as a need and not a right. This need can be fulfilled either by the State apparatus or by a private entity. The difference is that if it is fulfilled by the State, the citizens accrue a right, whereas under a private entity, it is just a matter of demand and supply.

The Indian government also follows the same dictum of water being a need, though not that explicitly. But the story here is quite worrisome. According to a report, 30 Indian cities will face a grave water crisis and may eventually run out of water altogether. Thirty-one per cent of urban households, mostly in unauthorised settlements, do not have piped water connections. According to a Centre for Science and Environment study, 48 per cent of India’s urban water supply is dependent on groundwater and in seven of the 10 most populous cities in the country, the groundwater has fallen significantly over the past decades.

The Government of India’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) dashboard shows that out of 181 million (18 crore) Indian households in 2019, only 32 million (3 crore or 17 per cent) had piped water connections. The Government of India’s JJM, which aims to provide safe water to all households by 2024, works on principles adopted from the state of Telangana’s safe drinking water project, Bhagiratha.

Both Bhagiratha and JJM have salient features that are very appealing. Both talk about providing water to every household and women being able to escape the drudgery of collecting and carrying water, among other promises. However, both need to ensure that the leakage and loss of water that occur during supply and distribution are reduced and that these losses are not be linked to the user charges on water. 

Governance and accountability

In India, especially in urban centres, governance or management of water is key to ensuring the protection of aquifers, ecosystems and to providing an adequate quantity of potable water. Most of the cities and their fresh water bodies, bauris (deep wells) and springs are polluted. With their influence, cities poach on the peri-urban areas and then further into the rural hinterland. This is an unsustainable model.

The national capital region of Delhi is a prime example of such an emerging disaster. Not only have its water bodies (urban commons) been usurped for the greed of real estate development, these have also been contaminated over time. 

The second issue in governance is that parastatal organisations are running the show in alliance with large corporations, who design urban water supply and sewage schemes in such a way that after some time, they have to just give up. Instead of being planned and implemented in consultation with the people, these schemes are designed with high capital costs, which in the long run become unsustainable.

Take, for example, the water supply scheme in Leh town in Ladakh. Here, I have personal experience of interacting with the town’s water officials. Despite our repeated requests that the water supply scheme should be designed in consultation with the people, it has been designed by professionals without taking people’s wisdom and voices into consideration. The town’s water supply scheme aims to lift water from the Indus River, instead of tapping glacial water.

The Indus water scheme would cost around Rs 100 crore, with the operational costs touching nearly Rs 5-6 crore per year. The water tapped from the glacier would have flowed with the force of gravity and would not have cost more than Rs 10 crore and with minimal operational costs. Despite such an alternative, Leh opted for sourcing the river waters. This will pass the burden of maintenance onto the people, even though they did not have any role in approving the scheme.

Another example is the decision of a prominent research institute in Shimla city, Himachal Pradesh, to pay for the water supplied by the town water supply system, which itself gets water transported from a distance of more than 70 km at great cost. The institute has chosen to do this, despite having a huge rainwater harvesting tank of its own. 

The third example concerns the catchment areas of Himayatsagar and Osmanasagar lakes in Hyderabad city. These are supposedly gravity reservoirs that supply drinking water without a single rupee required to be spent on pumping. “Currently, the government is spending Rs 2-5 per kilolitre (KL) to get water from these twin reservoirs, while it is also spending Rs 150 per KL to get water from the Godavari River,” stated Donthi Narsimha Reddy, a renowned environmentalist. However, the real estate lobby in the city wants to claim the buffer area around the reservoirs, which are part of the urban commons, to maximise its profits.

There have to be clearly demarcated roles in water management. The onus should be on parastatals or city governments, preferably the latter, to ensure adequate quantity and quality of potable water, in addition to protecting and conserving water sources. It is also important that cities look beyond their boundaries and work to rejuvenate water resources to ensure a water-secure life for their people. 

Tikender Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla city, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Occasionally, CDKN invites guest bloggers to share their views on our blog. These views are solely the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of CDKN alliance organisations or their funders.




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