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Managing Water

Urban flooding has become a recurrent nightmare and will only get worse till we recognise that an economy is a subset of the larger eco-system within which it functions

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Among the many constraints to growth, perhaps the most important and least understood, is water. Danger signals have been visible on the horizon for some time now. India is the most groundwater dependent country in the world but water tables and water quality have both been falling, with arsenic, fluoride, mercury and even uranium contaminating the water we drink. Growing incidence of cancer is only one of the health hazards this is creating.

We also see increasing conflicts over water: across states, uses and users, with India’s growing urban and industrial sectors often in ugly competition with farmers for it. Agriculture still consumes more than 80 per cent of India’s water. India’s water use efficiency is among the lowest in the world. Without a complete paradigm shift in the way we manage water in rural India, we will never be able to release enough water for cities and industry, to jeopardise   India’s overall growth process.

We have built so many large dams across our major rivers. But trillions of litres of this water is not reaching farmers. A recent report I submitted to the Government of India, shows   that with changes in the way we manage water stored in these dams, India can quickly add 24 million hectares to irrigated area at less than half the cost of building new dams. All we need is to hand over the management of last-mile delivery to Water Users’ Associations of farmers who charge their members for water and use that revenue to operate and maintain the system. States like Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have shown exactly how this is to be done and the dramatic transformation it can bring about.

We also need to manage our groundwater in a participatory and sustainable manner. This involves farmers being informed of the nature of the aquifers where their groundwater is stored so that they may make rational decisions about the crops they plant. Of course, if the government keeps procuring only water-guzzling rice and wheat, there will be little incentive for farmers to grow the more ecologically and nutritionally appropriate millets and pulses. By including these crops in the massive Mid-Day Meal and ICDS programmes, the government can create a huge incentive for farmers to shift cropping patterns.

Indian industry has among the highest water footprints in the world. It is in its enlightened self-interest to invest in wastewater treatment and reuse the recycled water, since the payback period for these investments is very short. We must also recognise deep synergies in the water sector: recycled waste water can meet industrial and agricultural needs and be a powerful source of revenue for urban local bodies, at the same time. The private sector has a key role to play here but it needs to learn from repeated failures of PPP across the globe. Re-municipalisation of water in city after city must force us to acknowledge that privatisation of water is a compete non-starter. The private sector must build capacities and professionalism in urban local bodies when they are invited to manage urban water systems.

Urban flooding has become a recurrent nightmare and will only get worse till we recognise that an economy is a subset of the larger eco-system within which it functions.

A comprehensive paradigm shift in water management is thus, imperative if we wish to see the Indian economy grow at high rates.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Mihir Shah

The author is a visiting professor at Shiv Nadar University and a former member of the Planning Commission

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