In 2018, the Niti Aayog declared that India was staring at the worst water crisis in its history with 600 million people facing high-to-extreme water stress and about 200,000 people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water. As many as 75 per cent households lacked supply of water in their premises.
It warned that the crisis would worsen with demand outstripping availability by a factor of two by 2030, which would lead to 6 per cent loss of India’s GDP. A 2018 World Bank report also said there was a direct link between the availability of water and poverty, quoting a study in India which estimated poverty rates to be higher by 9-10 per cent in districts where groundwater tables were below 8 metre.
A year after the alarming Niti Aayog report, the Central government has announced a new Ministry of Jal Shakti for an integrated approach to water conservation and management with the aim of providing piped water to every rural home by 2024.
This is a marked departure from its 2017 mission of providing tap water on a sustained basis in every household by 2030 and that of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) of 2009 which promised to provide safe and adequate water…to every rural person on a sustainable basis by 2017.
Past experience: Lack of planning and delivery mechanisms
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) did a performance audit of the NRDWP and observed (in 2018 report) that lack of necessary focus and prioritisation keeping in view the deliverables that were to be achieved by 2017 resulted in their non-achievement.
The report said the overall coverage of rural habitations increased only by 8 per cent at 40 litre per capita per day (lpcd) and 5.5 per cent at 55 lpcd after incurring expenditure of Rs 81,168 crore during 2012-17. Portable piped water could be provided to 18.4 per cent rural households (against a target of 50 per cent) and household connections to 16.8 per cent (against a target of 35 per cent).
One of the critical observations of the CAG was that 4.67 lakh habitations (17.26 lakh total habitations ) had slipped from fully covered’ by provision of safe drinking water to partially covered’. The reasons being excessive extraction of ground water, inadequacy of efforts to address quality related aspects, lack of sustainability of water sources and inadequate/non-maintenance of water supply schemes.
As much 98 per cent of water-related schemes, including piped water schemes, continue to be based on ground water with little attention being paid to use surface water. The ground water is depleting fast. The Central Ground Water Board data shows water levels fell in 61 per cent of wells in the country between 2007 and 2017.
The Niti Aayog too, in its 2018 report, drew attention to a growing national ground water crisis with 60 per cent states performing poorly in recharging aquifer. The low performers are the northern states of UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and others with a population of 600 million people. Contaminated water is another worry as it affects three-fourth of the population, contributing 20 per cent of the country’s disease burden.
More than half of India’s districts are threatened by ground water depletion or contamination, said a 2019 World Bank report.
As for the CAG report on NRDW, it blamed the programme’s failure to lack of planning and delivery frameworks.
It said, 21 states did not frame water security plans and the annual action plans of the states did not bother about stakeholder and community participation. Institutions critical to planning, execution or coordination, like the National Drinking Water and Sanitation Council, State Water and Sanitation Mission, State Technical Agency, Source Finding Committee, Block Resource Centres etc. were either not set up, remained dormant or did not perform their assigned functions.
Water is a state subject and the NRDWP is a centrally sponsored scheme funded by both centre and states.
Primacy to water harvesting, adequate and safe water supply
Chennai is a classic case of mismanagement of water resources. Taps have gone dry here, and other parts of Tamil Nadu, as it faces one of the worst summers this year. While this is not new, Chennai has also witnessed catastrophic flooding due to heavy rain in 1943, 1976, 1985, 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2015. Among other things, a CAG report of 2017 found laxities in planning and water management, including failure to harvest rainwater, for its predicament.
Going by the CAG’s findings on the 2009 NRDWP and the Niti Aayog’s 2018 report on water crisis a similar fate may befall for the entire country if the priorities go wrong.
The NRDWP’s objectives and goals were to provide adequate and safe drinking water on a sustainable basis, to achieve which the CAG advocated institutional frameworks for planning and delivery and water security plans and annual action plans prepared with community participation to ensure that schemes are aligned to community requirements and ensure optimum and sustainable utilisation of water resources.
The National Water Policy of 2012 and other Central government policies from time to time have put a premium on rain water harvesting, conservation of water, judicious use of ground water and efforts to recharge of aquifer, among others, to augmenting availability of adequate water.
Reliable and adequate data
The key to overcoming the impending water crisis is adequate and reliable data, which remains a big challenge. The Niti Aayog says data systems related to water in the country are limited in their coverage, robustness and efficiency. While detailed data is not available for domestic and industrial use, the data that is available can be of inferior quality, inconsistent and unreliable due to outmoded methodologies in data collection.
The task for the Ministry of Jal Shakti is, therefore, cut out: a collection of reliable data, putting a premium on ensuring adequate and safe drinking water and institutional mechanisms to achieve those goals.