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Overcoming water scarcity, The Dawn, By Aamir Kabir, 30/9/2002


Despite the advances made in the water sector since independence, the level of service and the degree of coverage are still far from adequate. The water sector is facing a number of challenges regarding the availability, accessibility, use and sustainability. The poor coverage and the low quality of service thwarts economic development of the country as is evident from the Economic Survey of 2001-2002.

In such a scenario, need for better planning and development of our water resources has been felt more. The dry spell has helped us realize that the future agricultural and energy requirement could not be met if we don't change our attitude in treating the realities on adhoc basis. Planning and development need to be governed from national perspectives. The need to utilize available water resources in a judicious and equitable manner calls for a well-defined policy for optimum use and conservation of water resources for enhanced agricultural productivity. Instead of going into statistical analyses and agricultural data, only those points would be discussed which may form part of our first ever national water policy, likely to be announced soon.

The importance of water was recognized even before independence and special impetus was given to development of water resources after the independence. But in spite of all this, it has not been possible to keep pace with the population growth, ever increasing requirement, and technological changes.

The ensuing policy needs to highlight the short-term (up to 2015) and long-term (up to 2045) thrust areas and action plan for achieving the objective of optimum use of every drop of water resource.

Back-up support for long and short term investment plan for un-interrupted implementation of the policy should be provided. It also requires periodical review and evaluation to help timely refinement or modification of the policy, thrust areas and the action plan.

Development of information system: The prime requisite for any resource planning is a well-developed information system. It is required that a standardized national information system for the country's water sector be developed and updated, upgraded regularly, with easy accessibility to all stakeholders and planners through a scientifically designed management information system. The national data base of water should be analyzed and used to improve the availability estimates and recalibration of models as and when required.

Review of existing practices: Planning and policy formulation is a dynamic process and for any policy to be successful a regular review and timely refinement is necessary. At the time of independence the existence of water resources sector infrastructure was negligible and there were very few major or large size water resources development projects. Therefore, the main thrust of the policy makers in the post-independence era was towards the construction of new facilities. The water rates were highly subsidized during that period as increasing the agricultural production for self-reliance was the main target.

But in a quest for creating more and more infrastructure, the consolidation of created facilities by proper maintenance and management and through smaller water harvesting structures were neglected. The increased food production as a result of green revolution in seventies probably made the planners complacent, and the allocation to irrigation sector was gradually reduced to such an extent that the project completion periods got prolonged,resulting in high cost and time over-runs, and on the other side the maintenance of existing facilities was deferred due to the non-availability of funds.

In eighties, the gap between the potential created and the utilized widened. The deteriorated condition of facilities drew attention of the planners. The thrust area of planning changed and shifted to rehabilitation of the irrigation system. But this shift also neglected the basic concept of management and involvement of users and the activities more or less revolved around construction activities, renovation and lining of the distribution systems. The environmental and the financial sustainability of the water resources was not given its due importance.

Participatory management: It is an unpleasant truth that water availability in the country is limited, emphasizing that the optimum utilization of water is equally or even more important than the development of water resources. This emphasizes the need of giving highest priority to increasing the efficiency of water use and supply both. The main thrust areas of action and the future action plan should be participatory approach in the rehabilitation and the modernization of the existing system and their future maintenance and management. This approach is the most important concept for future which will go a long way in improving the efficiency and management of our irrigation system. There is vast scope of increasing the irrigation efficiency both on- and off-farm, which can not be achieved without the active participation of the end users.

Drainage: Drainage is an integral part of irrigation for preventing rise in water table. Conjunctive use of surface and ground water must be an effective part of the national policy and computing the water requirement accordingly.

Drinking water requirement of the command and nearby area must be considered and reserved, wherever required. The minimum downstream flow of all storage projects will have to be ensured.

Comprehensive watershed management, including the afforestation and soil conservation in basins, where the flow regime has not stabilized will have to be considered as well for reducing the siltation of dams and flow peaks.

Waste water: Uncontrolled waste water disposal from urban and industrial centres is a waste of reusable water and also poses a serious health hazard and an environmental nuisance. Plans will have to be included in the policy for the utilization of treated sewage, which is the most reliable source of water, for irrigation of non-edible crops. The recycling of treated water in industries and its treatment to the desired level, so as not to affect the quality of water, need to be explored as well through vigilance, monitoring of water quality and co-ordination with the environment control authorities.

Groundwater: It has been assessed that mean annual natural replenishable ground water is not utilized. Though the ground water including the return flows from the irrigated areas, urban and other water utilization sectors is available but still the exploitation is highly imbalanced. In some areas, especially in the irrigated commands, the water table is rising and even causing water-logging. Simultaneously, in other areas the water table is falling and threatening the groundwater quality. Thus there is an immediate need to control the over-exploitation of groundwater in dark and grey zones and to increase the abstraction in areas where water table is rising through legislation or incentives/ disincentives. The legislation regarding the groundwater utilization is said to be under the government consideration and needs to be ratified and implemented soon, at all levels. O & M Cost: The limited financial resources of the country, reducing allocation to irrigation sector, increasing establishment cost, price escalation, increasing fund requirements for O&M of enhanced facilities,etc, have not allowed to take up new projects as per plan which has resulted in cost and time over-run of the projects and has also delayed the benefits. The national water policy should provide that the government will not have to bear any cost of the O&M of the facilities created, except the head-works or large size main canals/feeders. The water rates have been too low and highly subsidized since long. Though the water rates have been increased recently but these are still inadequate and do not reflect the economic price and the scarcity value of water. There is also no incentive for efficient use of water in the present price structure and also there is no linkage of cost recovery with the quality of service.

Environment: Water projects have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the environment. There is a need to mitigate the problems identified and to develop future water resources with the least social and environmental
disturbance. Regular monitoring and review is equally important for environmental sustainability. In preparation of the new development plans special attention will have to be paid to environmental considerations and the alternative with minimum environmental and social disturbance. The drainage of the command area and ensuring minimum flow downstream should be made obligatory for future projects.

Conclusion: The problems faced by the water sector in the country are many, acute and serious. The implementation of the envisioned national water policy will enable the country to meet the challenges, and achieve the objective of integrated, efficient, environmentally and financially sustainable development and the management of the scarce water resources and at the same time ensure optimal utilization of every drop of water.

The water sector would then be able to accelerate the economic growth of the country. The success of the national water policy will depend entirely on the development and maintenance of the national consensus and commitments
for its underlying principles and objectives.