The national water framework law proposed by the Union government could not be more timely. Even as the onerous task of persuading state governments to accept the idea remains unfinished, the proposed framework, as an overarching statement of general principles that lays down the broad contours within which the Centre, the states and the local bodies can exercise their respective powers on exploiting water, is a comprehensive step in viewing water as a national resource.
That we have a problem on our hands is evident. India is among the most water-stressed countries on the planet, as is clear from the global water demand and availability data mapped by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States (see graphic).
A North-South stratification is visible in the graphic, both in terms of the physical supply of water and the access of populations to the resource. The entire southern hemisphere is water-stressed, in sharp contrast to the entire North, which has enough to meet its demand for the time being. The problem for the southern hemisphere countries is accentuated by their inability to mitigate the problem of lower availability of water by way of adequate storage provisions. India’s per capita storage capacity, for instance, is significantly lower than that of other countries, with the quantum of water that can be stored as a proportion of average river runoff pegged at just 50 days. This number subsumes wide variations — from 220 days in the Krishna, to just two days in the Brahmaputra/ Barak basin. The comparable figures for the Colorado River Basin and Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin are 900 days, while the figure for South Africa’s Orange River Basin it is 350 days.
Erratic precipitation patterns, which are becoming more the norm than the exception, add to these woes. This year, with the southwest monsoons below normal, and the northeast monsoon about 20 per cent deficient till end-December, the storage positions in key reservoirs in India is currently way below the adequate limits. South India has been the worst hit, with water-storage levels at their lowest in a decade. According to the Central Water Commission,