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Now is the time to manage our water

India is predicted to witness more than average yearly rainfall, thus breaking the last few drought cycles. But that does not mean we should forget to draw much needed lessons for managing drought likely to occur in the future.

It is worth recalling a recent Supreme Court judgement, Swaraj Abhiyan Vs Union of India (11 May 2016), which has brought into limelight the unsatisfactory status of our drought management. The judgment emphasized the need for taking measures such as, inter alia, setting up of a National Disaster Response Force and establishing a National Disaster Management Fund.It is worth recalling a recent Supreme Court judgement, Swaraj Abhiyan Vs Union of India (11 May 2016), which has brought into limelight the unsatisfactory status of our drought management. The judgment emphasized the need for taking measures such as, inter alia, setting up of a National Disaster Response Force and establishing a National Disaster Management Fund.

Under the existing practice, drought is defined in three ways. Meteorological drought is declared when there is deficiency of precipitation of a certain level, from expected or normal levels over an extended period of time; hydrological drought is defined as deficiencies in surface and sub-surface water supplies leading to a lack of water for day-to-day and specific needs, and finally, agricultural drought, triggered by meteorological and hydrological droughts, occurs when soil moisture and rainfall are inadequate, vis-a-vis certain expected levels, during the crop growing season, causing extreme crop stress and wilting.

Droughts can be managed if availability of surface water as well as ground water is adequate to meet the demand in various sectors - agriculture, domestic and industrial. Now that rain is knocking at our door, we must strive for adequate storage of water for use in times of crisis. Completion of delayed dam projects, renovating the existing dams, ponds, water tanks, to remove siltation, and restoration/creation of water bodies, must be given priority. Water conservation and recharging of ground water are essential steps in this direction.

The demand side of water management should also be given adequate attention. The demand for water is growing in all sectors day by day, as the country’s economic growth expands and the lifestyle of our population changes. By 2050, the average annual water availability in India is estimated to fall short of the demand, reducing per capita water availability to a water scarcity level. Steps for optimal water use will have to be introduced in all sectors.

First, today, water use in agriculture is more than 80 per cent of the total demand, and likely to hover around 70 per cent on a long-term basis. Ironically, ground water dependent intensive crops such as sugarcane, banana, etc., are produced in water-stressed regions such as Marathwada. Indiscriminate exploitation of ground water occurs through digging of borewells. In other regions too, dependency on ground water is very much evident.

As assessed by the Central Ground Water Board, the annual ground water consumption in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, is more than its annual recharge. In the country as a whole, about 89 per cent of ground water is used for irrigation. Thus, unless recharge of ground water is immediately undertaken for its replenishment, the country is expected to face hydrological drought, and consequently agricultural drought, in coming years. This also calls for adoption of ‘per drop more crop’ policy, by using proven technology and by growing less water-intensive crops. The use of Jain Irrigation technology, for example, shows that wheat production using micro-irrigation saves irrigation water up to 50 per cent, conserves pumping energy, maintains right humidity, enhances the yield and enables crop rotation with intermediate pulse crop during summer.

The existing regulatory barriers should be removed for optimum use of ground water. Under the ‘Easement Act 1882', a land owner has every right to collect and dispose of all water under the land and on the surface of his property. This needs to be amended, as ground water being seamlessly connected across users one person’s excess withdrawal affects its availability for others.

Second, in the industry sector too, there is enough scope for water conservation and recycling of waste water. Water intensive industries, such as the thermal power sector, paper and pulp industry, textiles and steel should undertake water use audit and reduce the water use in their operations in keeping with the availability of water. A study by The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi, (2015) showed that there is significant scope for saving water and consequent financial savings in high water consuming industries such as thermal power plants. The aim in these industries should be zero water discharge and optimal use of water for meeting their operations. The lead industry should also encourage other industries, placed in backward and forward chains, for undertaking similar activities.

Third, water loss during conveyance in domestic sector is significant, which can be avoided by use of advanced urban water systems. In Israel, this has been significantly reduced, and in addition, 86 per cent of domestic waste water is treated before recycling it for agricultural and horticultural use. The rating of water use equipment should be introduced. In this regard, the Bureau of Water Use Efficiency being proposed by the central Water Resources Ministry, can accelerate the process.

In sum, water security is vital for India’s sustainable development. The conservation of water has to be undertaken with seriousness, on a long-term basis. Current short-term efforts applied for country’s drought management will have to be combined with long-term measures on holistic basis. The need for policy changes should also be examined for incentivising optimum use of water. The Apex Court's remarks, such as "ostrich-like attitude" of some governments in dealing with drought, should trigger positive action not only on the part of governments, but also at all levels. And now is the time to act.

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