By Nitin Bassi and Arunabha Ghosh
Earth Day 2023, with its theme on partnership for the planet, comes at a time when there is renewed international focus on sustainability of natural resources, particularly air, water, and land. This is a historic year for the global discourse on water. The second United Nations (UN) Water Conference, held in March after a gap of 46 years, concluded with the adoption of the ‘Water Action Agenda’, an action plan containing about 700 commitments to protect Earth’s most precious global good—water.
A report launched by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW) shows that the world could fall short of freshwater by 40% by 2030. Further, the UN 2023 World Water Development Report highlights that progress towards all the targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on ‘ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030’ is off-track and the rate of implementation must quadruple. These findings are important for India, which has only 4% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources to provide water security to nearly 18% of the world’s population.
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Analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) shows that India has initiated action to manage, protect and conserve its water resources. This is helping drive economic growth, generate jobs, and achieve several SDGs, from poverty reduction and eliminating hunger to gender equality and sustainable cities. For instance, works to improve water supply access were targeted to provide employment to about 6.7 million migrant workers who returned to villages during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Progress in improved management of water resources has been made by embracing five SDG Global Accelerators, namely governance, finance, capacity building, data and information, and technology and innovations. But more action is needed in these areas to ensure a sustainable water future for all.
Governance: For better governance of its water resources, India unified its ministries dealing with drinking water and sanitation and water resources into the ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019. This helped improve decision-making at the national level. However, considering that water is largely a state subject in India, there are areas that need better coordination between the Centre and the states. They mainly include improving the management of inter-state rivers, which are still governed by a 1956 Inter-state River Water Disputes Act, and improving groundwater management where only 19 states and Union territories have adopted the legislation.
Finance: With actions such as ensuring safely managed drinking water services to each household through the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), India is running some of the largest water access programmes in the world. As of 2023, the overall allocation for India’s water action is about $240 billion for the ongoing schemes and programmes. This translates into an investment of about $171 per capita. India can build on this public investment by making water-related projects financially attractive for the private sector. This can be achieved by providing performance-based incentives and ensuring cost recovery, especially in the building, operation, and maintenance of wastewater treatment and water supply systems.
Capacity building: Most of India’s water-related programmes call for engaging local stakeholders or communities in water resource management, especially in regions where groundwater is over-exploited. One such programme, Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY), aims at arresting groundwater decline by engaging the community in preparation for a village water security plan. Such plans highlight the interventions that are required to not only augment water resources but also to manage demand. But preparing these plans requires an understanding of climate science, surface and groundwater hydrology, and water demand patterns. This is where the national, state, and local agencies need to work along with the communities. Communities are not just the audience for scientific inputs; they can be a source of traditional wisdom that can be codified to improve resilience against water variability.
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Data and information: There has been substantial progress in terms of data availability on water resources. For instance, the India Water Resources Information System (India-WRIS) provides data pertaining to climate variables, surface water, groundwater, and water quality. However, India still needs to strengthen its water datasets and initiate systems to generate information on water use and consumption at the end-user level. This can provide a realistic scenario of water availability and actual water use, and help decision-makers improve water allocation between states and sectors, and design incentives for water use efficiency.
Technology and innovations: Early on, India adopted water-efficient micro-irrigation for agriculture. The National Mission on Micro-irrigation was launched in 2010, which was subsumed under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana in 2015. By early 2022, about 14 million hectares of irrigated area had been brought under micro-irrigation. More recently, sensor-based Internet of Things (IoT) technologies have been adopted to regulate water releases from reservoirs and measure drinking water reaching habitations or villages. In order to ensure water security for end-users and promote water savings, such technologies must now scale to provide real-time information, whether on water losses during conveyance or water delivery at points of demand.
It would be a cliché to suggest that improved water governance needs better coordination across stakeholders from the national to the local levels.India would set an example if the building blocks highlighted above result in speed and scale for water sustainability. For a planet that is mostly water, India’s leadership would be a worthwhile commitment on Earth Day.
Writers are respectively, programme lead, and CEO, CEEW