Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s aim to provide potable water to every rural household by 2024 in Budget 2019-20. This is a key step towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals on water, which seek to achieve by 2030 “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”. What shows the Narendra Modi government’s commitment is the integration of decision-making by merging water resources and drinking water ministries to form the new Jal Shakti Ministry. The government has earmarked Rs 28,000 crore for the ministry in the Budget.
To ensure every rural household has piped water supply (Har Ghar Jal) by 2024, the government’s Jal Jeevan Mission will “focus on integrated demand and supply-side management of water at the local level, including the creation of local infrastructure for source sustainability like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture,” the finance minister had said, adding that 1,592 “critical and over-exploited” blocks in the country have been identified for this purpose.
Challenges posed by monsoon
While the Narendra Modi government’s intention and its plans are highly commendable, securing universal access to safe drinking water will be a daunting task because the country is facing huge challenges in terms of both water availability and its demand.
Over the years, India’s rainfall pattern has also changed for the worse, with 80-95 per cent of the total rainfall being received within a few days of the year. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD)’s average annual rainfall data from 1951 to 2010 indicates a decline in both the amount of rainfall as well as the number of rainy days. The IMD report indicates a decline in annual rainfall in at least 14 states, covering more than 50 per cent of the country’s area, with the maximum decline in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh – by 2mm to 4mm annually.
However, states like West Bengal, Bihar, and Gujarat show an increase in annual rainfall, ranging between 1.4 mm to 3.6 mm. Thus, climate change will further aggravate the spatial variability in terms of water available across the country. Seasonally, monsoon rainfall is reported to be decreasing in more than 20 states, with the maximum decline in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Planning not enough
The Modi government may provide piped water connection to all if the plans are implemented effectively, but ‘water for all’ will still be a distant dream. The infrastructure created for water supply will not bring water to the taps. While rainwater harvesting and restoration of water bodies are welcome steps, they are not sufficient to meet the rising demand for water throughout the whole year. The government’s push to reduce wastage of water will lead to conservation and reduce the burden on the supply system, but it may still not meet the demand during the peak summer season. Chennai water crisis is a striking example, and other cities could find themselves facing a similar crisis if strategic changes are not introduced in our approach towards the water.
For example, regions like Bundelkhand face water shortage throughout the year. Construction of more than 1,200 check dams and more than 10,000 wells under the drought mitigation strategy have not helped in making a significant impact on the region’s water stress. On average, 80-100 districts across the country receive deficient rainfall and are declared drought-affected every year. Several regions of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Telangana, Bihar, and Odisha are chronically prone to recurrent drought, and the IMD’s data on declining rainfall pattern suggests the crisis will further aggravate.
Need to change traditional ways
The traditional understanding of water conservation and augmentation needs to be blended with the advancements made in modern technology to solve India’s problem of water scarcity. While India has the capability to interlink Indian rivers and transport water from surplus to deficit regions, geopolitical priorities have almost stalled projects like Ken-Betwa river-linking project.
Although necessary information is available for installing stormwater management system with separate drainage for sewage and stormwater in cities, no step has been taken in this regard because it will require redesigning of the existing urban infrastructure. Similarly, decentralised sewage treatment systems and double-tap supply systems can facilitate improved water utilisation and play a more effective role in cleaning of Indian rivers. Also, planning of infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and colonies based on the micro-watershed setting within the city will help in not just managing the rainwater but can also help reduce urban flooding.
There is a need to use our water resources efficiently, but we also need to improve our approach and strategies towards water management. Determined efforts ‘beyond the usual’ are required.
S.K. Sarkar is Distinguished Fellow and Senior Director at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Shresth Tayal is Fellow, Water Resources Division, TERI. Views are personal.