Where every drop is precious

On March 22, the World Water Day, much was said about water and sustainable development. Sustainable development, according to the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, is one which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In other words, we must ensure that water, being critical to life, has to be made available for the future generations as well.

This is easier said than done. Freshwater resources are finite in nature and are becoming scarce by the day. Climate change is already impacting the availability of water in many countries. It is estimated that by 2050, India, too, would become a water scarce country. This calls for fresh thinking in augmenting water supply. India is dependent on unpredictable rainfall for its freshwater resources. Past efforts to augment water across many states in India and also its even distribution through the linking of rivers, harvesting rainwater, building dams and restoring of water bodies have yielded some results. But there is a need to ensure that water quality is not affected by contamination of groundwater and surface water. Today, about 70 per cent of India's water is contaminated, adversely affecting the availability of usable water resources further. What we need to do is to identify point sources and non point sources of pollution contributing to such contamination and devise appropriate remedial actions by way of scientific intervention as well as strengthen legislative and regulatory measures.

In India, water is mostly used in irrigation sector (about 80 per cent) followed by industrial and domestic sectors. Given the expected population growth, economic growth and lifestyle changes in the future, water use would rise at a rapid pace causing an immense stress on water resources. To avoid such scenario, there is a need to improve water use efficiency in all sub-sectors. For example, in the agriculture sector, millions of farmers employ the inefficient high surface irrigation. Fortunately, instances also exist in the agriculture sector, where with the use of less water, a farmer is able to get higher productivity along with enhanced economic benefits, health improvement of farm lands and sustainable environment. This would require introducing new practices such as drip and sprinkler irrigation in the farm sector.

Similarly, in the domestic sector, in both urban and rural areas, there is enormous scope to save drinking water. For example, the water loss in the urban piped water supply is very high and this calls for a serious re-examination of the existing water management systems. Minimisation of such loss would enhance the availability of water for the needy people in urban areas, such as slums. In industry, too, water use efficiency has to be increased after a thorough understanding of the usage by way of an audit.

Groundwater is extensively used for agriculture and drinking purposes. Their extraction in some areas is more than the recharge into the aquifers, as in the case in Punjab and Haryana. The deteriorating water quality is affecting the health of the people. For example, in West Bengal, 79 blocks in eight districts are contaminated by arsenic, affecting the health of over 18,000 people, while jeopardising the lives of 16 million rural population and 12 million urban population. While remedial action to prevent degradation of water quality is called for, there is also a need to manage the aquifer on a holistic basis. Unfortunately, groundwater in India is yet to be considered as a common pool resource. Managing the aquifers holistically would also call for the scientific mapping of aquifers, change of legal framework, change of mindset, in addition to active involvement of various stakeholders.

Water sharing of inter-state rivers continues to be a major concern in India. For example, disputes on the sharing of Cauvery, Ravi-Beas and Yamuna waters remain unresolved. Resolution of disputes is being attempted through the intervention of various courts, although a mechanism exists through the constitution of inter-state river boards. Water sharing formula based on scientific analysis is often disputed by states which feel deprived of their legitimate right to access more water to meet their growing needs.The stance often taken by the states are either contradictory or unsustainable. Given this situation, a reasonable river water sharing formula needs to be evolved through wider debate and consultation with various stakeholders.

If resolution of water disputes at national level becomes difficult, transboundary riversharing would become impossible. There was no formal global governance mechanism till very recently. But on August 17, 2014, the UN Water Course Convention, 1997, came into effect. Sadly, this convention has been ratified by only 35 countries. Many countries, including India, China, and Bangladesh, are yet to ratify the same. Therefore, transboundary water disputes would continue to trouble the policy-makers in various countries, including India. What we need now is an effective global governance framework, where various transboundary issues are resolved on an equitable, reasonable and non-harmful basis through dialogues and consensus.

In any climate change and sustainable development debate, water security issues are critical. Addressing them would require interventions at various levels. In India, where water is considered as free good, its sustainable use would require more than double the present effort on the part of all stakeholders.