Bengaluru: After three national water policies--1987, 2002 and 2012--India has prepared a new national policy on water, key to addressing problems with water quality and ensuring water security for all. The latest National Water Policy (NWP), not yet released publicly, needs to be implemented by 2030 if India's water woes are to be solved, says water expert Mihir Shah, chairperson of the 13-member committee that has drafted the NWP.

India is the largest extractor of groundwater in the world. Nearly 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress, which is set to worsen with the average annual per capita water availability estimated to fall by 37% over half a century to 2050, potentially making India water scarce.

Shah was a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission and was responsible for drafting the section on management of water resources in the 12th Five-Year Plan. He is also the co-founder of Dewas-based Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a grassroots initiative on water and livelihoods.

In an email interview, we asked Shah about the key features of the new NWP, urban water management, participatory management of water resources and the goal of providing piped water to all Indians by 2024.

Edited excerpts:

How is the new draft National Water Policy (NWP) different from the last three--1987, 2002, 2012? In a September 2021 article, you had written that the new "NWP spells out both specific strategies, as also definite time-lines." Could you elaborate?

I do believe the previous NWPs had many good features. We have tried to carry them forward. We have placed them within a more coherent structure, provided greater clarity on how to take these ideas forward and fleshed out more clearly links of water policy to policies in other sectors. We have suggested many new ideas that more accurately reflect the changing needs of the time and the latest understanding of water.

A major lesson to be drawn from the experiences of previous NWPs is that in the absence of a dedicated mechanism for their implementation, monitoring and assessment, NWPs have tended to suffer neglect. The new NWP, therefore, proposes that a dedicated task group will oversee and coordinate the implementation, monitoring and assessment of progress on the policy. To reverse water scarcity, redress water problems and ensure water security for all, the new NWP will need to be implemented by the year 2030. The task group will develop a 10-year action plan with the active involvement of stakeholders at all levels, within one year of its setting up.

Did the committee have to change or modify aspects of the policy due to the changed circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The pandemic only reinforced the conviction of the committee that a major change is required in the relationship of the present development paradigm with nature. Ever since Independence, our water policy has been dictated by a "command-and-control" approach towards nature. This is inherent in the larger development paradigm that has failed to adequately recognise that the economy is but a small part of the larger ecosystem.

What we need to acknowledge is the profound interconnectedness and interdependence that characterises the world we live in and to be humble in our approach to natural systems, showing them the respect they deserve and recognise that prakriti rakshati rakshita (nature protects those who protect her).

Worldwide and in India, there is more focus on agroecological farming and interventions to considerably reduce the utilisation of water in agriculture and manage demand-side water issues. Considering that agriculture is the largest user of groundwater in India, what sort of changes in agricultural policy would be needed alongside the new water policy?

A unique feature of the NWP is that it teases out the inter-connections the water policy necessarily has with policies of other sectors. Agriculture is the most important example. Water-intensive crops are grown even in relatively water-short regions because these are the only crops for which farmers are assured a steady market, thanks to government procurement operations (for wheat and rice) and purchase by sugar mills. This skewed pattern of demand has aggravated the water crisis. Hence, crop diversification in line with local agro-ecology, without endangering national food security, is the NWP's single most important step in resolving the country's water crisis. The government must align its structure of incentives and investments in crop value-chain development with the need for crop diversification.

The most important step in this direction is to diversify crop procurement operations to include nutri-cereals, pulses and oilseeds, in line with local agro-ecologies. As this diversity of crops finds a growing place in public procurement operations, farmers will also gradually diversify their cropping patterns. This will lead to a huge saving in water.

The largest outlet for procured nutri-cereals, pulses and oilseeds would be the supplementary nutrition and meals provided under the Integrated Child Development Services and Mid-day Meal Scheme, and the grains provided by the Public Distribution System for foodgrains. Several state governments are also moving in this direction.

These crops are high in dietary fibre, vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, calcium, zinc, copper and antioxidants. Done at scale, this would correct the currently skewed distribution of water and also be a powerful weapon in the battle against the twinned curses of malnutrition and diabetes.

Highly water-consuming, high-cost and high-risk chemical agriculture has become unviable for many farmers, whose net incomes have started to turn negative, due to both diminishing returns and rising input costs. The excessive fertilisers and pesticides transported into the body via food and water have adverse health impacts. A movement away from farming based on excessive use of chemical inputs could lead to massive savings in water use. Widespread and affordable facilities for testing the maximum residue levels of chemicals in farm produce, as per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, are urgently required. We also need separate processing, storage and transport facilities of agro-ecological farmers so that [their produce] does not get contaminated by the produce of chemical farmers.

The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) plans to ensure supply-side infrastructure for piped water to rural households by 2024. How does a huge infrastructure project for supply fit into the NWP recommendations for management of water demand? Is there adequate focus on securing local water sources for long-term sustainability of such initiatives?

Meeting the daily drinking and domestic water needs of the entire population is the top priority of the NWP. The NWP emphasises source sustainability, by groundwater recharge and water reuse through grey water management, water conservation and rainwater harvesting. Rural domestic water supply should also include adequate water for livestock.

The NWP commends the JJM resolve to create a jan andolan [people's movement], envisaging a community approach to water. The NWP suggests that the leadership of women-led communities is critical to the successful implementation of JJM. The role of government agencies will be redefined in terms of facilitation and technical support to the communities, to enable them to take informed decisions on water use.

The NWP recommends that JJM recognise backward linkage of the tap to the larger resource, like a watershed or aquifer. Water source sustainability is possible only when the larger water resource is secure.

The firm commitment to an open defecation-free India also implies that water security and safe sanitation must go hand-in-hand, with clear guidelines for design, location and maintenance of sanitation facilities that will safeguard water quality. The government must have a technology assessment framework to appraise technologies and ensure the adoption of appropriate technologies under JJM.

The NWP argues that institutions and institutional capacity form the key to securing sustainable water and sanitation. This is possible only through improved capacities within all institutions involved in rural water supply. This capacity building must use a trans-disciplinary approach to develop trained cadres of professionals, with knowledge, skills and strategies for implementing an integrated rural water and sanitation programme, founded in community-level behaviour change.

The NWP is clear that in case private sector agencies are used under JJM, the design of such schemes must be based on an understanding of the 'common pool' nature of water. Private companies must adhere to non-negotiables like provision of adequate quantity, quality and physical accessibility, affordable charges, timely and proper repairs and maintenance, and clear processes of accountability, transparency and redressal.

You have asked for the National Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme (NAQUIM) to take a "bottom up" approach. What would a bottom-up approach look like? [NAQUIM is a programme to map aquifers, which are water-bearing formations, and for sustainable use of groundwater.]

Groundwater is the lifeline of India's economy and society. India draws more groundwater every year than any other country, more than China and the USA (the second and third largest groundwater using countries) combined. The NWP gives highest priority to sustainable and equitable governance and management of groundwater.

Drilling to greater depths and pumping at higher rates have caused a precipitous fall in both water tables and water quality. A very large number of districts are facing a problem of over-exploitation, severe contamination or both. This is a direct consequence of competitive extraction of what is a shared, common pool resource, without taking into account the enormous diversity in the nature of India's aquifers. The vital ecosystem services provided by groundwater have also been endangered. The most striking manifestation of this is the drying up of rivers [such as Gomti, Chambal, Ken], which depend on groundwater flows during the post-monsoon period.

Given that groundwater is a common pool resource and considering the large number of groundwater sources--over 40 million wells and tubewells and 4-5 million springs--spread across diverse socio-ecologies, effective management of groundwater cannot be based on a license-based bureaucratic approach. Participatory groundwater management must form the backbone of our groundwater programmes.

Information on aquifer boundaries, water storage capacity and flows in aquifers should be provided in an accessible, user-friendly manner to primary stakeholders, designated as the custodians of their own aquifers. This information will enable them to develop protocols for sustainable and equitable management of groundwater. This includes crop-water budgeting, matching cropping patterns to agro-ecology, reuse and recycling of water, etc.

Government agencies in collaboration with civil society must enable and facilitate this process by providing all the necessary technical and social support, apart from the large-scale community mobilisation that will be required to implement participatory groundwater management at scale. NAQUIM also takes a broad-based, regional view and is unable to provide higher resolution information needed by the primary users of groundwater.

The periodic national assessment of groundwater provides an overall picture, but has limitations in capturing the micro-scale complexities on the ground.

The periodic national assessment of groundwater must be conducted regularly, on an annual basis. [The last one was before the 2018 monsoon.] The assessment should be progressively integrated with the results from NAQUIM, which needs to be redesigned to incorporate a bottom-up approach, to enable involvement of primary stakeholders in managing groundwater sustainably and equitably.

There is an urgent need to considerably enhance the coverage of the groundwater observation wells monitoring network (which can be used for monitoring both groundwater levels and quality), providing one groundwater observation well for every 500 hectares. A similar density for monitoring spring discharges and quality is also necessary.

What does the new NWP recommend for large metropolitan cities, such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi, where water stress for domestic needs is already high? Do you feel that local governments, especially in urban local bodies, have the capacity to implement water security and conservation-related policies (including a technical initiative like NAQUIM) in the long run?

In so many respects, India's urban water problems are even harder to tackle than those facing rural India. Rapid urbanisation is leading to more informal sourcing of water, mainly through tankers using groundwater, increasing demands for long-distance import of water and encroachment upon urban water bodies.

In most cities, water supply is sourced from long distances, increasing the costs of infrastructure and maintenance. There are losses in the distribution system because of leakages and bad management. Only 47% of urban households have individual water connections. Urban areas produce 62,000 million litres of sewage every day. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the installed capacity to treat this sewage is only 37% and just 30% is actually treated. Some of these plants do not function, either because of high recurring costs, or because they do not have enough sewage to treat.

In most cities, only a small, unestimated proportion of sewage is transported for treatment. Very often the treated sewage gets mixed with the untreated sewage, resulting in pollution. Conventional sewage treatment plants are expensive, consume a lot of energy and have a large carbon footprint. These plants are also not that effective against pollution that comes from different sources rather than one point, which is more common than single-source pollution in urban spaces.

Nine Key Strategies For Urban Water Management

The National Water Policy (NWP) outlines nine key strategies, which together constitute a paradigm shift in urban water and wastewater management, says Mihir Shah, a water expert and chairperson of the 13-member committee that began drafting the NWP in 2019. This is how he explains the strategies:

i. Demarcation, protection, restoration and recharge of traditional water bodies, including their functional parts--drains, catchments and aquifers. Cities must get funds for water projects only when they have accounted for the water supply from local water bodies and roof-top water harvesting.

ii. A 21st century blue-green infrastructure urban planning approach to enable better utilisation of water-related ecosystem services, improve water quality, and help in temperature moderation and flood mitigation. [Blue-green infrastructure means making urban areas flood resilient by using urban green spaces and natural water flows.]

Specifically, curated infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales [more effective storm water runoff systems that provide an alternative to storm sewers] enable harvesting of run-off and filtration of contaminants and sediments into the soil. This can also include restored rivers with wet meadows, where they can meander, or wetlands constructed for bioremediation, urban parks, permeable pavements, sustainable natural drainage systems, green roofs and green walls. All government buildings should be built (and all older public sector buildings retrofitted) in accordance with sustainable building codes, adopting water management with recycling, reuse and closed-circuit technologies [which enable zero discharge by reusing, recycling and filtering water].

iii. Compensation to cities for ecosystem services so that cities contribute towards protection and treatment of the catchment areas of their water bodies. Building requisite capacities among urban local bodies and water utilities will help develop this green infrastructure.

iv. Management and governance of aquifers must be mainstreamed into urban water planning. Urgently initiate participatory aquifer mapping through multi-stakeholder platforms for the management of urban recharge and discharge areas as well as groundwater quality.

v. The thrust of urban water planning must move decisively towards demand management of water. Reduce, recycle and reuse must form the basic mantra of integrated urban water supply and wastewater management, with primacy given to treatment of sewage and eco-restoration of urban river stretches, as far as possible through decentralised wastewater management. All non-potable use (flushing, fire protection, vehicle washing and horticulture) must mandatorily shift to treated wastewater.

vi. Low-cost technologies with high eco-restorative value [that repair or restore damaged sites] must be adopted with hybrid, integrated, energy efficient treatment units comprising anaerobic, micro-aerophilic and anaerobic processes to combine organic pollution treatment with nitrate and phosphorus removal.

vii. Improvement of water distribution should involve extensive use of IT-based sensors to ensure equitable distribution, leak detection and plugging, and for quality improvement.

viii. Urban local bodies' and water utilities' capacity must be built to take managerial and technological decisions regarding essential public services and to implement and deliver these services to all. This internal capacity is even more important in a situation where urban services are contracted to private companies.

ix. Use of private sector agencies must not lead to privatisation of water. The overall control and ownership must remain in public hands. Regulatory capacity must be strengthened to ensure clear accountability so that the responsibility of the state as public trustee remains even if some functions are entrusted to any specific agency.

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