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Puneet Srivastava is currently working as Manager-Policy at WaterAid India. Smart Water & Waste World interacted with him on various topics ranging from water scarcity, decentralized water governance, and water recharging, to the community’s role in increasing groundwater levels.

Q. Recent Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report describes “600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water”. How grim is the situation of water scarcity in India? Is it truly alarming?
Mr. Srivastava: As stated in Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), the situation with regards to water scarcity in India is grim. The rate of groundwater depletion in India is among the highest in the world. This has led to a massive fall in water tables over a period of time. Overall, this situation is truly alarming and needs immediate attention of both the citizens as well as the government for initiating urgent action on policy and water governance.

Moreover, we believe that there are a number of additional indicators that should be considered for inclusion in CWMI so that we are able to make more informed and apt decisions. Some of the indicators are data related to water quality, local governance and its access to data, water use efficiency, and water demand as per the crops, drinking water supply rates, quality of water supply, water-borne diseases, environmental impact and so on.

Photo Credit: WaterAid/PrashanthVishwanathan

Q. What are the immediate measures that need to be undertaken to prevent India from reaching the “Day Zero” situation? Who needs to take these measures?
Mr. Srivastava: People play a central role in taking up urgent measures to stop Indian cities from reaching day zero situation. Rainwater harvesting needs to be practiced and monitored continuously at both the individual as well as the institutional level to reduce water extraction and also recharge groundwater. More and more thrust on water saving technologies in farming should be adopted as agriculture is the biggest consumer of groundwater in India. Industries in their backyards, as well as the civil society network, should help communities to adopt water conservation measures at the local level thus making them water sufficient. Overall, improved water management practices – awareness around it not just at the household level but at a society community level is needed.

Reducing fresh water use for activities such as gardening, using the bucket and not pipes for washing cars and so on. These may be small but important steps in the direction of avoiding day zero situation in most cities and towns in India.

Also, the government should take necessary steps to ensure that our reservoirs have enough water to store for year round and also ensure that water storage capacity in different parts of the country is expanded to fulfill the rising demands of cities and towns in India.

Q. How do you see the role of decentralized water governance in mitigating the water crisis as projected in the Composite Water Management Index report?
Mr. Srivastava: Decentralized water governance with the support of an equally robust policy and regulatory framework is a critical step to mitigate the water crisis as the evidence suggests from different parts of the country.

Many of the gaps suggested in CWMI report results from – weak participatory water user groups in the irrigation sector, non-adoption of water saving techniques in irrigation sector at the farmers level, no interest and investments in rainwater harvesting by people, lack of awareness regarding the quality of water.

Thus, providing people with information to raise awareness about the ongoing water scarcity situation in the country is important to make citizens accountable and also support them in finding solutions that can be implemented at an individual level as well as institutional level thus accounting for people’s wisdom in the governance of water.

Realizing this, WaterAid India has started the initiative of conducting Jal Choupal at different levels of water governance (Village, Gram Panchayat, Block, District, State, and National) to trigger democratization of water and ensuring rapid action on water security through structured discussions at community platforms on issues related to integrated water management. Jal Choupal is playing the role of informing citizens of their role in securing water and livelihoods.

Q. What is water recharging and why is it important?
Mr. Srivastava: Groundwater recharge may include recharge as a natural part of the hydrologic cycle and human-induced recharge, either directly through spreading water in basins or through injection wells, or as a consequence of human activities such as irrigation and waste disposal. Artificial recharge with excess surface water or reclaimed wastewater is increasing gradually making it a part of the hydrologic cycle. Natural recharge to the water table can be diffused or localized. Diffuse recharge is the widespread movement of water from the land surface to the water table as a result of precipitation over large areas infiltrating and percolating through the unsaturated zone. Localized recharge refers to the movement of water from surface water bodies to the groundwater system and is less uniform in space compared to diffuse recharge. Most groundwater systems receive both diffuse and localized recharge. As the aridity of the region increases, the possibility of diffused recharge decreases. It may be noted that most water from rainfall that infiltrates in the ground does not contribute to groundwater recharge. Such water is stored in the soil zone and finally comes back to the atmosphere by evaporation and plant transpiration.

Water recharging is important to maintain water levels beneath the surface of the earth.

Q. Do we have laws in existence for mandating water conservation/water recharge? If yes, are they effective? If no, what is it that we require immediately?
Mr. Srivastava: We do have existing laws in many states for mandating water conservation and water recharge. Except for the industries, these laws are too dispersed and loosely understood by water sector stakeholders in municipal and irrigation supplies. Many of them are in the shape of guidelines and policy notes/ directives/ government orders and so on than in the shape of laws that can bring seriousness to its implementation. What we need now is to have one umbrella framework for the water sector in India at federal level and umbrella state laws for each of the states that defines key policy objectives and stakeholder responsibility in water sector governance and also helps in prioritizing water conservation and water recharge at industries, irrigation, and municipal and rural areas level. We also need to acknowledge the resources required for eco-system services management between rural and urban communities to ensure that people in rural areas are properly incentivized for protection of catchments of water bodies whose water is used by municipalities in towns.

Q. Do you think that community has a major role to play in water recharging? How?
Mr. Srivastava: The communities have a major role to play in water recharging by investing in low-cost artificial water recharging structures at the household level and advocating for it in each of the commercial and institutional buildings within our villages, cities, and towns. Rain Water Harvesting for both storage of water and using it for groundwater recharge needs to be undertaken by each citizen religiously using the roof area or the other area available at their household level. To trigger this awareness, WaterAid India started a campaign on the installation of rooftop Rain Water Harvesting Tanks and recharge pits in six Gram Panchayats of Kanpur and Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh last year.

Q. Which states/cities/districts are doing well in terms of decentralized water governance?
Mr. Srivastava: The states that are doing well in decentralized water governance are Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

Q. Tube well irrigation is the biggest cause of our depleting water tables but we cannot deny our farmers access to water for irrigating crops. Agriculture sector being the largest groundwater user, what alternatives do you recommend for bringing down the rate at which groundwater is extracted in irrigation.
Mr. Srivastava: Groundwater regulation, its enforcement, and pricing in agriculture, industrial and domestic water supply sector remain the key agenda for water sector reforms. We should first adopt a regulation where the groundwater abstraction is measured for different purposes and some taxation (based on environmental principals of more you use more you pay) should be levied by the government for the same. This will ensure the integration of the policy of treating groundwater as a common property resource and delink it with property rights in India. The second step in this direction can be enabling policies that enforce industries, municipal water suppliers, farmers to return or recharge the same amount of water they draw for their use by investing in low cost and monitorable artificial recharge structures. The third step in this direction is to incentivize the farmers that adopt low water guzzling techniques such as drip or sprinkler irrigation and use solar water pumps that save ground water.

Q. Suggest a few measures that can be taken at the household level (both urban and rural) to ensure water recharging.
Mr. Srivastava: It should be made mandatory for each household in rural and urban areas with having the roof area of more than 50 sq. meters to construct a rooftop rainwater harvesting system in their premises for harvesting rainwater and recharging the same locally whatever is surplus after augmenting household storage.

Q. Can you quote a few examples of best practices in both rural and urban (metros/small towns) settings on community-led water recharging measures to save existing water bodies?
Mr. Srivastava: There are many best practices for both rural and urban settings on community-led water recharging measures in India. The work done by Anna Hazare in Ralegaon Siddhi, Rajender Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar district of Rajasthan, the ancient wisdom of water conservation of Tanka System in Rajasthan, the ingenuity of revival of ponds by Anupam Mishra, and restoration of ponds and tanks in Bundelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu are few shining examples.

The revival of Sasur Khaderi River in Fatehpur district of Uttar Pradesh, protecting lakes from encroachment in Bangalore, rainwater harvesting at city-wide scale in Chennai are few examples of impact at scale on community-led and government supported initiatives for recharging of existing water bodies.

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