Best time to address water crisis was ten years ago, the next best time is now

October 7, 2020 4:20 AM

The use of new-age methods to transform the water sector in order to provide alternative sources and improve efficiency can ultimately reduce water stress.

An independent, transparent regulator with a vision for local issues, could catalyse the depoliticisation of the water arena.An independent, transparent regulator with a vision for local issues, could catalyse the depoliticisation of the water arena. (Representative image)

By Gaurav Taneja & Abhaya K Agarwal

The water situation in India is grave owing to tremendous water-stress, depleting aquifers, dying rivers and large chunks of land facing desertification. The net water availability, close to 700 BCM, appears to meet the present demand, but a tremendous variation in rainfall patterns and surface water regimes make areas like the northeast water-rich while others like the southwest and west extremely water-scarce. Increasing population, rapid urbanisation, climate change and other drivers are only further widening the demand-supply gap by increasing the demand at approximately 10% per annum.

Over the last few decades, India has made large investments in water infrastructure (estimated at Rs 350-400 per capita annually under various schemes), ~Rs 430 billion under JNNURM, ~Rs 200 billion under Smart Cities, ~Rs 80 billion under AMRUT and Rs 50-100 billion each year for NRDWP. Although the country has benefitted from these investments, the coverage remains poor with 82% rural population, about 163 million still bereft of piped water. Water, unfortunately, remains a pending agenda contrary to the other sectors. Water is a state subject, and its governance structure has a fragmented and complex interface with lack of coordination, accountability and transparency. Jal Shakti, an aggregate water ministry, is a welcome step for ameliorating various water institutions.

An independent, transparent regulator with a vision for local issues, could catalyse the depoliticisation of the water arena. While some states like Maharashtra have set up a water regulator, they have fundamental flaws like financial dependency on the state, limitations in its powers to regulate water tariffs, lack of adjudicatory powers and overriding access to bureaucrats to its committee.

Unregulated and free access to groundwater has resulted in exploitation. Water-intensive activities in water-scarce regions must be stringently regulated. There is a need for enhancement of inter-state trade that promotes responsible access to water.

Learning its lessons from the power sector, the water sector, which is a monolith institution almost completely controlled by the government, should gradually move towards unbundling, followed by private participation in certain inefficient segments. Various multilateral institutions have played a key role in facilitating privatisation investment. Privatisation is a key enabler for introducing efficiency in operations and investments along with bringing about contractual and commercial discipline.

The use of new-age methods to transform the water sector in order to provide alternative sources and improve efficiency can ultimately reduce water stress. This includes non-revenue water reduction—smart real-time monitoring, metering at various levels and automation will ensure a reduction in systems losses; circular economy—encouraging recycle and reuse by various programmes like the NMCG, development of reuse policies like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu; desalination—developing formal policy and building upon existing efforts with due considerations to overarching use of renewable energy to reduce its environmental impact. NITI Aayog has proposed desalination along India’s vast coastline.

Historically, imbalances in the water supply have been redressed by augmenting more water and developing new infrastructure. As a result, water resources are being exploited to the extent of becoming non-replenishable. The answer, therefore, lies in reducing the demand side of the equation. Demand-side entails pricing of water rationalised to its value and altering the public perception that clean and safe water is a social but an economic good. Awareness regarding subsidies that go into the water system could increase accountability. Irrigation being the top-most water consumer at 80% usage, has an efficiency as low as 45%.

Rainwater harvesting, efficient plumbing fixtures, recycling greywater, and micro-irrigation need to be incentivised.

Addressing water risks requires the fundamental shift, from enhancing short-term systemic performance to ensuring equally long-term resilience. The best time to act to address the water crisis was ten years ago, the next best time is now.

The authors are partners, Government and Public Sector, EY India. Views are personal

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