Drafts of two proposed new laws recently released by the Ministry of Water Resources, along with the report of an expert committee headed by a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, Mihir Shah, on institutional reforms in the water sector, have proposed radical changes in the way water is used and managed in India.
The laws may or may not be passed in their current form — in any case, water being a state subject, the laws would need to be adopted by states too to become effective. What comes out of the Shah panel’s recommendations also remains uncertain, even though they are said to be backed by both the Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
But these documents certainly reveal the central government’s mind on how water resources need to be managed in the future. They lay down the broad principles of water-related policies in a country that is likely to be classified as severely water-stressed in about a decade if current patterns of water usage continue.
A single, composite entity
This is to emphasise that the source of all water available on land is the same — rain or snow. As such, there must be integrated planning on, and governance of, water resources, and groundwater, river water or surface water (such as reservoirs, ponds, lakes) must not be seen as different or separate resources.
Currently, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) frames policies and guidelines related to the exploitation of ground water, the Central Water Commission (CWC) deals with water in irrigation projects and reservoirs, while the work of river conservation and planning is divided among two Ministries, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Environment. Glaciers and snow cover are dealt with by the Ministry of Earth Sciences from the point of view of climate change research. In fact, as many as 11 different Departments or Ministries handle the subject of water in different ways, according to a CWC note.
The idea is to ensure that policies and regulations framed by these different agencies are in sync with each other, and adhere to a broad national water policy.
Water is a finite resource
A common perception is that water shortage is mainly a result of over-use, injudicious exploitation, and wastage. While these have certainly aggravated the situation, water availability per capita has reduced sharply over the last century due to population pressures and lifestyle-induced increases in demand. According to one estimate, water demand has grown 6 times since 1930, while population has grown by slightly more than 3 times. Water availability would, therefore, have gone down even if it had been used in the most efficient manner possible.
As such, all policies must be geared towards the protection, conservation and preservation of water — most importantly, groundwater resources that have been overexploited and are depleting fast, especially in urban areas. One of the steps suggested is to demarcate ‘groundwater protection zones’, in which the extraction of water would be strictly regulated. Groundwater security plans should be prepared for each such zone. Activities like mining in the nearby areas, which tend to pollute groundwater, are also sought to be regulated in these zones.
Water is common property
This is to stress that no water resource can be privately owned — by an individual, community, corporate organisation or even a government agency. Water is a common pool resource, held in public trust by governments at all levels. Water services or management can be entrusted to a private agency, but it would, in no case, lead to the privatisation of water.
An important implication of this understanding would be that owners of land would not have any right over the groundwater beneath, and thus would not be able to indiscriminately pump out water.
Right to Water for Life
There is a certain minimum amount of ‘safe’ water that is necessary for sustaining human life, and every citizen must be entitled to this minimum amount as a matter of right. This amount may differ from region to region, and would be defined by the local government — but it must be sufficient for requirements of drinking, cooking, bathing, sanitation, personal hygiene, “special needs” of women, and for domestic livestock.
While allocating water resources, the right to water for life must take first priority, followed by food security, agriculture, livelihoods and more. Governments must ensure that, ideally, everyone has access to this minimum amount of water free of cost. In any case, no one should be denied this amount because of an inability to pay.
This principle seeks to recognise that a majority of water uses would eventually have to be priced, in order to economise usage and raise resources for efficient management. Pricing can be graded, with full cost recovery from high-income groups, affordable access for middle income, and a certain amount of free water for the poor. Alternatively, a minimal amount of free water can be provided to everyone. Water charges should be determined on volumetric basis.
River basin as unit of planning
Given the integral link between aquifers, groundwater and river flows, it is important that planning for water management is done at the level of the river basin itself. This is necessary to prevent local over-extraction, and destruction of catchment areas, while ensuring that all water-related activities are in sync with each other.
There should be a River Basin Authority for each basin, and sub-basin authorities for large basins with distinctive sub-basins. The work of these authorities would be to prepare and implement river basin master plans. All water resources related projects must conform to this master plan.
Additionally, there should be minimum interference in the natural flow of rivers, and the natural state of other water bodies and wetlands. In particular, rivers should be protected from construction on flood plains and from sand mining.
Participatory and community management of water
This is to emphasise the role of participatory management of water resources, including irrigation. Local communities must have a decisive role in the allocation and use of water in their areas. Water User Associations need to be established with statutory powers at the gram panchayat level to facilitate decentralised decisionmaking.
Reduction in industrial water footprint
Industries consuming large amounts of water must calculate and declare their water footprint in their annual reports. They must take steps to progressively bring down this footprint every year, and state this progress in their annual reports. They should, ideally, use only recycled water. Use of groundwater for industrial use must be authorised by government. There must be “prohibitive penalties” to prevent profligate usage of water, which may include denial of water supply services beyond a threshold.