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“Water Crisis Is Fundamentally A Governance Issue”

S. Vishwanath, a Bangalore-based rainwater harvesting consultant with 32 years of experience in designing aquifer recharge, wastewater recycling, etc., tells Avishek Banerjee that India needs water budgets and demand management to tackle water crisis

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What do you think of NITI Aayog’s findings on water crisis in India?
There is a need for water index. But water is a state subject and it’s local too. So it cannot be a pan-India index. It has to look towards nuancing itself more locally. The second point is, it is unnecessary alarmist on the groundwater running out in Bangalore, Hyderabad and other places basing it more on newspaper reports rather than on specific studies. These are two broader observations. The third one is that it is not really focused on institutional governance, which is the key challenge.  For example, what India needs is a river basin institution that will understand the parameters at the river basin scale on what are the current threats to river water flow, soil deterioration, riverbed deterioration, forest catchment deterioration, trends of a particular river basin and what needs to be rectified.

What are the key reasons for such a crisis? 
It is not a resource issue, which is what NITI Aayog seems to suggest. It is not a distribution issue. It is fundamentally a governance issue. We do not have the right institutions to manage and solve the problem. We are a groundwater-dependent civilisation; the largest component of our water supply for everyday use, whether it is agricultural or industrial or domestic, actually comes from groundwater. But we have not focussed on groundwater management and groundwater governance especially from a demand perspective. Also, we don’t have water budgets and demand management in place.
What corrective measures can be taken to re-energise water storage in the country? 
We must focus on the institutional architecture. For example, cities need what is called ‘integrated urban water management institutions’, which manage water comprehensively (whether it is) storm water, surface water groundwater, waste water, rainwater. Similarly, we need to draw water budgets at units of let’s say watersheds or aquifers or gram panchayat level. Annual water budgets have to be drawn up and you have to live within those water budgets. So the identification of the core problem seems to be wrong.
What will be the long-term economic implications if India goes waterless in the coming decade or so?
The economic impact is going to be huge. The economic impact will be on agriculture beyond cities. For a city like Bangalore, which has a $80 billion to $100 billion GDP every year, the fulcrum of that amount is on the water supply that comes into that city. So if there is a water shortage, the whole economy will face a tremendous challenge. The second is the power sector, especially thermal power plants and hydroelectric plants, which are completely water dependent. If the water crisis continues, we will have a huge economic impact.

What is the way forward to save our rivers and tackle water crisis?

The water policy has to be drafted in order to understand the implications of what’s happening with water. That has been happening in Karnataka. Therefore, there is a movement to change. River water is only 35 per cent of the demand. Sixty five per cent is groundwater. Rivers should not be the focus as much as soil and groundwater. Fundamentally, the largest volume of rainwater in India is held by soil. We need to build the health of soil, especially organic carbon and soil. We need to ensure that  moisture retentivity in soil is increased. That is crucial. Second is to recharge aquifers.

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Magazine 21 July 2018 S. Vishwanath niti aayog

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