World Water Day: Case for sustainable solutions

Tikender Singh Panwar

The world is running out of fresh water, thanks to the unsustainable development model over the last few decades that has induced irreversible changes in climate change and brought an existential crisis.

The regular cycles of nature have been disrupted by climate change and massive abuse of water systems across the globe. Most governments are abdicating their responsibility of protecting and conserving water systems, rather are handing over the management to the private sector. But this corporate control over water is a threat to the wellbeing of humans.

Making the invisible visible

The 2022 World Water Day (March 22) theme is ‘Groundwater: making the invisible visible.’ The UN has called for enhancing knowledge exchange and collaboration to increase awareness of taking care of groundwater.

Why is groundwater important?

It is important because 50 per cent of all drinking water worldwide is from groundwater; 40 per cent of water for all agriculture irrigation, and 33 per cent of total water required for the industry comes from groundwater.

The world has finite supplies of freshwater. Assumptions that humanity would never run out of freshwater are inherently false. Available freshwater amounts to less than one half of one per cent of all the water on earth. The rest is seawater, frozen in the polar ice, etc.

The relationship with water and ecosystems that sustain it must change; the sooner, the better. Groundwater plays a vital role in sustaining ecosystems and enabling human adaptation to climate variability and change.

Groundwater is the primary source of water supply in many cities worldwide, including most Indian cities. India has 18 per cent of the world’s population but only 4 per cent of its water resources and is one of the most water-stressed nations in the world.

Come summers and water in some Indian cities becomes a commodity ‘as precious as gold’, states a World Bank report. Indeed, it does, but the solutions offered by multilateral agencies lay their basis on further commoditising water and alienating people.

Whether water is a right or a need is a question that requires considerable attention. The advocates of private control over water – the ‘Washington Consensus’ – term water as a need and not a right. The requirement can be fulfilled either by the State apparatus or by a private entity. In the former, the citizens accrue a right from the State, whereas, in the latter, it is just a matter of demand and supply. Unfortunately, the Indian government also follows the same dictum of water being a need, though not explicitly. The much propagated Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is an outcome of such faultlines. 

The Indian story is worrisome. According to a report, 30 Indian cities will face a grave water crisis and may eventually run out of water altogether. Forty per cent in Indian cities and 31 per cent urban households, most in unauthorised colonies, do not have piped water connections. According to a CSE study, 48 per cent of India’s urban water supply depends on groundwater. In seven of the ten most populous cities, groundwater has significantly decreased over the past decades. According to NITI Aayog, nearly 70 per cent of India’s water is contaminated.

The JJM dashboard shows that out of 18.93 crore households in 2019, only 3.23 crore (17 per cent) had piped water connections. This was after five years of Modi rule. The JJM works on the principles adopted from the Telangana model of Bhagiratha. Both Bhagiratha and JJM talk about water in every household, women getting rid of the drudgery of carrying water, etc. However, both have the strong presence of the private sector in the water supply and distribution system.

Fancy phrases like reducing ‘non-revenue water’ sound excellent, but the fact is that the ‘non-revenue water’ should mean checking leakages and loss during supply and distribution. This loss should not be linked to the user charges on water. Both the models push for such user charges by mounting the burden on the people.

Governance of water

In India, especially in its urban centres, governance or management of water is key to ensuring the protection of aquifer ecosystems and providing an adequate quantity of potable water. Why should a metropolitan city like Delhi destroy the forests of the Sirmour district in Himachal Pradesh by constructing a dam (Renuka Dam) and then supplying water to the city hundreds of kilometres away? Imagine the capital cost of such a project followed by its operation and maintenance.

Why should not cities be made to harvest water as a routine exercise? The government institutions and buildings occupy most of the spatial land. Why should it not be mandatory for them to ensure zero water usage? The models of city development are faulty.

Most of the cities and their freshwater bodies and springs have been contaminated, and once that is done, the cities, because of their influence, poach on the peripheries and then further to the rural hinterland. This is an unsustainable model.

Gurgaon and the National Capital Region of Delhi are vibrant examples of such a disaster. Not only their own water bodies (urban commons) were usurped for the greed of real estate development, they were also contaminated in due course of time. Most of the smaller freshwater ponds, rivulets etc., have become open spaces of raw sewage.

The second issue in governance is the parastatals running the show in alliance with large corporations who, through their consultants, enter the cities and design water supply and sewage schemes in such a way that after some time, they give up. Instead of designing schemes in consultation with the people, these schemes are designed with high tech capital cost, which in the long run becomes unsustainable.

For example, the water supply scheme designed in the Leh town. This flows from my interactions with the water officials of Leh. Our repeated interventions were that the water supply scheme should be designed so that people form the bedrock of consultations. Instead, the scheme has been designed by professionals without considering people’s wisdom and voice.

Instead of tapping glacial water from the top, the town has constructed a water supply scheme to lift water from the Indus River. The Indus water scheme would cost around Rs 100 crore, and the operation cost would be nearly Rs 5-6 crore per year. Whereas water tapped from the glacier will flow with gravity and will not cost more than Rs 10 crore and with minimal operational cost. Despite such an alternative, the Leh town opted for the water lift scheme from the Indus. This will pass the maintenance burden onto the people though they did not have any role in designing the project.

The second example comes from my visit to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, formerly the Viceroy’s Lodge, Summerhill, Shimla. The institute has a huge rainwater harvest tank with a capacity to cater to its water needs for a few months together. However, it still opts for a water supply scheme from the town’s water utility. The water for the town is supplied from more than 70 km, which incurs a high cost. 

The third example flows from a very recent statement of the Telangana chief minister abolishing its GO (Government Order) Number 111, dated March 11, 1996. This GO was to set a radius of 10 km buffer zone to protect the catchment areas of Himayatsagar and Osmanasagar lakes in Hyderabad city. It would directly impact the water supply to the city and the cost of switching from these reservoirs to fetching water from long distances. These are supposedly gravity reservoirs that supply drinking water without a single rupee being spent on pumping. The difference in pumping is stark.

“Currently, the government is spending Rs 2- Rs 5 KL(per kilolitre) to get water from these twin reservoirs, while it is spending Rs 150 KL to get it from the Godavari River. This proves that it is also economically inadvisable to scrap GO 111,” Donthi Narsimha Reddy, a renowned environmentalist, said. Why is this being done? Simple answer – the real estate lobby in the city is pushing for claiming this radius for maximising their profits, which are part of the urban commons.

There has to be a demarcated differential in water management. Parastatals or city governments, preferably city governments, should have the onus and the capacity to ensure adequate quantity with quality water potability. Protecting and conserving water sources must be a significant task to follow. It is essential that the city moves out from its boundaries and rejuvenates its own resources and groundwater for a secured life.

First published on Deccan Herald titled, World Water Day: The case for sustainable solutions, 22 March 2022

Read more by Mr Tikendar Singh Panwar on City planning, Not So Smart: Shimla Smart City plan Lighthouse Projects, in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

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Tikender Singh Panwar is the former deputy mayor of Shimla and a visiting senior fellow at IMPRI