Dr. Arvind Kumar
India is not immune to the adverse impacts of global-warming, as pointed in the IPCC’s report on global warming 2019 andinadequate measures in addressing global-warming can push India among the worst hit countries that may face the wrath of natural calamities like floods and heat-waves. Moreover, climate change, rapid population growth, and urbanization, and a rising demand for food and energy are impacting water quantity and water quality.The outlook isstark and we are left short of time and immediate action is required.
The twin sides of COVID-19
COVID-19 has truly created an unprecedented situation affecting every sector and post-pandemic world,and it is likely that water use for personal hygiene will rise significantly and the only available option is to ensure water availability during these times.But if we look through a positive prism, the lockdown periods have had a beneficial impact on nature, for instance, less pollutants were released into water bodies and water withdrawal for industrial activity almost came to an end. Some news reports mention that Ganga water in Uttarakhand is now fit for drinking, proving a valid point that nature has immense self-cleansing and rejuvenation capacity, if left undisturbed. 2020 is the super year for nature and we will have many opportunities to set-up pathways to reversing the degradation of water ecosystems and build a mutually supportive relationship with earth.
Threats to water security
Climate change is causing adverse changes to the Riparian eco-tones of ‘Water Tower of Asia’ where already dry season flows are struggling to meet demands of population explosion, urbanization and overuse on major rivers and especially trans-boundary rivers like the Ganges and Brahmaputra make water-related challenges more pronounced. Water conflicts are rising in water stressed areas among/between countries because sharing a very limited and essential resource is extremely difficult., ‘WATER is considered the new OIL’ with changing geo-political situation among countries and predicting that third World War shall be fought on water. India has diverse geographical topography and biogeography zones facing the calamity of floods and drought both at the same time, and recurrently faces unsustainable patterns of erratic rainfall. Around 600 million Indians already face “high to extreme water stress”, adding that 21 cities including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020 quotes NITI Aayog, in a 2019 report.
With the population of 1.27 billion plus, and growing, the total precipitation is 4000 BCM and water availability is 1869 BCM, are we ready to anticipate future water-stress episodes?
Mixed-bag of ‘missed’ opportunities
The lack of integrated approach in water sector has led to the failure of realizing various water conservation measures. Policies like National Water Policy and campaigns such as Namami Ganga, Jal Shakti Abhiyan, reviving the springs and traditional wisdom have been implemented but the absence of ‘holistic and integrated policy’ have un-resolved our water problems even today. It is also argued that legal frameworks still encompass generic principle of water planning at macro-level but decentralized approach with location specific purpose at Panchayat level is yet to be implemented. Also, we hardly follow the principles of sustainable consumption. For instance, it can take about 10,000 litres of water to produce one kg of cotton fabric. Putting in the words of Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “there is a need to understand the hydrological cycle, the value of ecosystems, and how much water is embodied in our consumption patterns”.
Moreover, within rural settings, lack of community ownership and lack of incentives for households to invest in sanitation are some examples of why water and sanitation targets are not reached. Raising awareness on the risks to health posed by open defecation and investing in behavior change related to hygienic practices have proven to be relaxed.
A paradigm shift towards integrated water possibilities
Nursing the conviction that no policy or programme can be efficiently and effectively implemented sans capacity building of the people who always remain at the receiving end and having no say in policy-making process, India Water Foundation since inception in 2008 has focused on ‘Putting People First’ and strengthening ‘capacity building’ endeavors as knowledge and engagement partners at Pan India level and beyond as it is a sine qua non for adaptation & mitigation of environment related woes. Through our Jal-Mitra campaign, we have been advocating water conservation as a public movement building around 50,000 Jal-Mitras and also fostering Young Green Change Makers to carry sustainable environmental activities.Major activities undertaken by us since inception veered around major themes of water and climate change, which inter alia, included: managing water resources, tackling environment issues, exchange and sharing of views on rejuvenating rivers, focus on SDG 2030 realization and generating awareness among communities on abandoning the use of plastic.Realizing water conservation strategies and SDGs implementation in Meghalaya first through an integrated development model, we have encouraged tailoring in Sikkim, Aspirational Districts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
From compartmentalized to ‘convergence’ approach
We have traditionally treated water as a crisis, not as an opportunity. We need to realize water as a socio-economic connector to address our water woes. Once resilience to water-induced calamities and environment-induced vagaries is enhanced, attainment of other goals will be easier because both water and climate changes are at the roots of bulk of the calamities. Water conservation is a complex issue that requires a multi-pronged approach and focusing on demand side and supply side options would be necessary.It is appreciative to see that Ministry of Jal Shakti has timely initiated ‘Catch the Rains’ programme. Even our Hon’ble PM Sh. NarendraModiji during Mann Ki Baat reminds people to focus on saving water.The recently inaugurated‘SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework’ has rightly mobilized a call for UN agencies, governments, civil society, private sector and other stakeholders through five ‘accelerators’ to drive progress on water and sanitation issues, on the whole. If principles of water management are understood and implemented, not only can an abundance of water become available for all people on earth but our global climate can also be restored.
High prioritization is required towards community pooling of water under the public trust doctrine and communities need to be trained at the level of Panchayats by ‘Sensitizing, Incentivizing and Galvanizing’ them. As a member of committees such as ‘National Wetlands Committee and New India@75, NITI Aayog, I have always mentioned people’s participation is the key for any program’s success at ground level. The guidelines for implementing Wetlands Rules, 2017 are truly guided by an ‘integrated management plan’, ‘wise-use’ of wetlands, enumerating the wetland in land revenue records and an emphasis on sustainable development. Moreover, a well-designed National Water Policy customized as per contemporary needs must encompass an integrated approach incorporating ‘transversal’ shift interlinking vertical linkages between water- food-energy nexus with horizontal indicators like heath, education, agriculture, gender etc. must be weighed against efficiency, effectiveness and equity if India has to realize its 24×7 water vision.
Time to invest in nature
The Government of India often claims extensive tree plantation drives, but do we have a number on how many saplings turn into trees at the end? Planting trees is not enough, rather holistic ways for example re-wilding, a form of environmental conservation and ecological restoration can help repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Similarly, practices like Adaptive Management, Polluter pays principle Carbon Offset often remains on paper. These are organizing principles to understand, deal and respond to contemporary environmental problems under different environmental categories.
Last year, nature-based solutions are featured as priority action portfolio at the UN Climate Action Summit and we are at a turning point where we cannot go back to business-as-usual and instead must use this opportunity to transition towards nature-positive economy. Since agriculture uses close to 80% of freshwater, stepping up efforts towards water water-efficient irrigation, rainwater harvesting/conservation, management of village water sources, reuse of wastewater and promotion of water-prudent crops is the need. Nature based solutions like recharge of natural aquifers, indigenous methods of conservation, integrated water shed management, eco-system-based adaptation, restoring wetlands, water-food-energy nexus should be adopted. Highlighting the case for resource efficiency, it has the potential to support climate change mitigation focusing on scientific concepts and technologies incorporatingNEWater, circular approach, green infrastructure holding a high potential to revive the water economy.
In these times of crisis, it becomes increasingly important to consider long-term measures and cost-effective strategies rather than short-term measures. Like COVID-19, water scarcity is a concern that needs collective action and sustainable solution with knowledge-driven approach.Stressing the need for holistic water conservation, ‘a country’s prosperity depends on water availability and quality and must begin with a new paradigm of moving towards cooperation, convergence and collaboration efforts and an integrated approach should be a cornerstone of water resources management in India’.