Water Governance: Challenges and the Way Forward

Simi Mehta

Water Governance poses one of the biggest challenges in modern-day India that looks out for definitive solutions. How this scare water resource is to be allocated? How to generate livelihood in the food-energy nexus? How to keep the order of the biosphere balanced. Every place and every community have their unique stories and problems associated with water, wherein the governance addresses complications of the governor than the benefits of the governed.

With this background, Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, New Delhi. Shed some light on the subject in a webinar organized by Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal as part of the series – The State of the Environment – #PlanetTalks.

While highlighting the protest by a Scheduled Tribe community in Palghar district of Maharashtra against indecent cutting of trees to build a dam, Thakkar said, such project was beamed to provide water to the urban areas. It was constructed in the lieu of irrigation canals to be built for the benefit of the tribal communities farming there but the project submerged the land and forests the community resided on. The protest was supported and led by Surya Pani Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.

The water from the dam was supposed to facilitate the typically mismanaged urban areas. But the lack of potential of rainwater harvesting, mismanaged the local water system and untreated sewage did not address the demand side. It is the case of poor governance where supply-side solution of acquiring water resources is creating havoc for the already disadvantaged and marginalized. Further the involvement of state and non-state actors, the issue hasn’t been resolved.

Key aspects of water governance

Thakkar then highlighted the key aspects of an effective system of water governance in a water blessed country which includes a comprehensive policy followed by an Action Plan to formulate the policy. He also emphasized on the importance of resource literacy on water and building institutions in line with framed policies. He prescribed the top-down approach and definition of ‘per capita availability’ to be rechecked and substituted with a bottom-up approach and relevant definitions, that is, a more localized treatment of governing water. Taking the example of Maharashtra as a whole, he mapped out the irony and contrast of the state where a large number of dams exist despite being severely drought-prone.

He further pointed out some lacunas present in the state of water governance that needs to be addressed.

Problem: Lack of reliable information and doctored data which is unfortunately aided by the conflict of interest among governing bodies like the Central Water Commission (CWC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), the regulators, the financial agencies.

Solution: Thakkar suggests is to bring transparency and bridge the information gap, by putting data into public domain right away. Localised storage options, flood management, optimal use of reservoirs, river management – its flow, pollution and biodiversity, catchment management via enhancing water recharge, studying the flow of sediments, management of agriculture – regulation of water-intensive crops and cropping pattern, regulations for groundwater consumption, an Urban Water Policy focusing on Water Smart cities, corruption-free quality and pollution management and a check on climate change induced by anthropogenic activities that causes harm to water resources are some of the governance tools to sought-after.

Urban Water Policy and the Role of Industries

The population in cities leaves behind a huge water footprint in three distinctive features – the mismanagement of the demand side, the source of water, usually the big dams and the untreated sewage. The overt use of sand is another feature that affects the surrounding river flow as it is sourced from the same, thus breaking a niche ecosystem. Thus, there needs to be a National Urban Water Policy that will fit and come under the ambit of another comprehensive National Water Policy.

Industries can play an important role in rainwater harvesting. Urban agriculture can benefit from treating grey water, thus creating a social responsibility scheme of ‘water responsibility’ in CSR lines for the industries who generate toxic effluents. Further, Thakkar highlighted that official buildings should first equip themselves with a rain harvesting system before making it mandatory for private institutions and facilities. On the untreated sewage, he advocated for the formulation of a decentralized system of sewage management in the urban localities and a transparent committee that will monitor and evaluate the progress.

Best practice

Articulating the best practices of water governance, Thakkar gave an example of a World Bank project in Andhra Pradesh where they educated and equipped the local community to understand their water budget and how the water levels have been changing, and what should be the appropriate cropping patterns. A ‘River Parliament’ in a village in India wherein the locals came to meet once a while to discuss water management. Durgashakti Nagpal’s (IAS) view and experience as a civil servant on water governance highlights the communities affected by water insecurity and are at the frontlines of vulnerability. Her views should be one of the primary stakeholders of every discussion and decision-making process.

Pointing out the problem in citizen participation, Thakkar maintains that due to the non-realization of the urban dwellers that water management is their problem and view that they are not part of the governance, they don’t get actively involved in water governance. There is a need for a ward level committee to educate the citizens about the source of water, the importance of conservation, and how they can play a role in the management and, subsequently, governance. The demand for a more significant role of citizens is something that should not be ever negated. 

While emphasizing dams and the ‘development’ role, Thakkar criticized that the 5000 dams were being constructed across India without civil consent and opinion, which has only done more harm than good, especially to the vulnerable groups. He voiced the need for post facto assessment; the capacity to learn lessons and change accordingly is also what the governing institutions should bring about as a character. He cited an example of how NDMA should have an ‘independent credible assessment’ as to what happened and who should be accountable of and the shortcomings that made the disaster turn into a calamity. 

Water signifies life on Earth. It is the most crucial and fundamental element for survival. Water should be treated as a right to every individual and then only if all the needs are satisfied, it should be used for luxury purposes. – Himanshu Thakkar

Acknowledgment: Indranuj Pathak is a research intern at IMPRI. He is pursuing Masters (Public Policy) from NLSIU, Bengaluru

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Picture Courtesy: The Better India