Way ahead for water security

Representational Image (Getty Image)The 2015 Paris Climate Conference commencing from November 30 will for the first time in over 20 years seek to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate with the aim of maintaining global warming below 2 degrees centigrade over the 21st century relative to pre-industrial levels. Many countries including India will be discussing their 'Intended Nationally Determined Contribution' (INDC) and India has already prepared its contribution keeping in mind climate justice and sustainable development goals for its 1.2 billion people.

In any climate change debate, the water issue is important as there is a close nexus between water, food, energy and climate factors underlying sustainable development. Temperature increase and occurrence of extreme events, as predicted by the Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will affect rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and ground water. Their effect on water security is well documented, resulting in increase of water stress in the world including India.

Water is a finite resource; globally only 0.5 per cent of total water is available for use by various sectors. Of all the demands on water, agricultural use is the highest followed by industrial and domestic sectors. In India, at current levels of water availability, we will not be able to meet the projected demand of 2050. Climate change impact will further stress the availability of water at local levels.

Given the scenario, what can we do collectively? India's INDC proposal along with the enunciation of various adaptation strategies will be discussed in the Paris meeting. In India, we need to undertake a lot of initiatives on the ground to transform into reality these adaptation strategies in the water sector.

First, for managing increasing water demand, enhancing water use efficiency in all sectors is of utmost importance. The 'per drop more crop' policy in practice in select areas in India is a successful effort in sustainability, but this initiative has to be scaled up.

Similarly, in the industrial sector, statistics show that Indian industries consume about 2 to 3.5 times more water per unit of production compared to similar plants operating in other countries. The ratio of water consumption to economic value creation (at US $7.5 per cubic meter of water) in Indian industry is very low in comparison to many other countries, for instance UK (at US $ 444 per cubic meter of water).

Water audit, recycle/reuse of water, improved technology and processes should be adopted by industries to enhance their water use efficiency. Similar initiatives have to be taken by way of conservation of water in the domestic sector. The National Water Mission of the Central government has already set a bench mark of 20 per cent improvement in water use efficiency in India. Various sectors have to undertake measures to align their water use efficiency with this national target.

Second, on the supply side of water management, augmenting safe water supply is critical by way of river conservation, sustainable ground water use, conservation of water bodies and rainwater harvesting. Today, Indian rivers are under threat due to flow alteration, water extraction and dam building, degradation of flood plains and drainage basins; over-exploitation of fish, contamination and of course climate change.

Cross-sectoral policy initiatives are called for to restore the health of rivers. The 'Namami Gange' programme of the Central government is a step in the right direction. However, such initiatives need to be backed by institutional innovations, adoption of technology for easy management of industrial sewage before discharging in river water, undertaking mass awareness and consensus-building campaigns, adopting integrated basin level approach rather than the existing river-centric mindset, integrated broader development policies, etc.

Third, maintaining water quality for river water as well as ground water at an acceptable level will enhance water security. Ground water in India is highly polluted and so is river water. Since both waters are closely connected, increasing water contamination, say in ground water will affect the river water quality and vice versa, and hence adversely affect water security. There are millions of users of ground water as well as river water. Mass campaign for increasing awareness and consensus building in this direction is called for in addition to the existing efforts of various governments.

Human induced climate change is now a reality. A need to have a climate resilient approach in dealing with water security is the need of the hour.