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The Narendra Modi-led government has laid special emphasis on water since returning to power for a second term in May 2019. The Prime Minister has spoken repeatedly on the need for water conservation, rejuvenating traditional water harvesting, and reducing water use in irrigation – which accounts for around 80% of all water use in India. The ministries for water resources, Ganga cleaning, river development, drinking water supply, sanitation, have all been brought under a unified Jal Shakti (Water Power) ministry. All this while, India has continued to suffer from drought, crippling water scarcity in villages and towns, delayed and erratic monsoon, with floods in some parts of the country while drought and water scarcity continue in other parts.

There has been global focus on the issue due to the water scarcity in Chennai, one of five metropolitan cities in India. Two trainloads of water are being brought to Chennai every day, but around 30% of residents are still facing night long queues for drinking water. Other large cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore are facing similar shortages and a majority of residents are forced to depend on private suppliers who deplete groundwater all around to bring water to the cities in tankers. Smaller towns and villages are faring worse.

All this places Upendra Prasad Singh, Secretary in the Jal Shakti Ministry, in a position crucial and probably unenviable. In an exclusive interview to thethirdpole.net, he spoke about the situation, what the government is doing about it, and what it plans to do.

Edited excerpts:

There has been a lot of talk about Indian cities running out of water, brought to a head by the crisis in Chennai. How bad is the situation?

Chennai is dependent on four big lakes for its main water supply. The problem is that the city gets its main supply from the retreating monsoon (the northeast monsoon from November to January), and last year the monsoon was deficient, and this year the monsoon was delayed. Much of this is about how we are using our reservoirs. They cannot always be full, otherwise there is a danger of overflow. We tend to use enough water stored in our reservoirs to make space for new water. If there is a mismatch, then we have a problem like Chennai, where the city was running out of water.

We must update our water management policies in accordance to what is happening. Bad days are going to be more common, and rainfall will be more extreme. We cannot continue to rely on big storage reservoirs in the same manner as we have in the past. We used to empty the reservoirs before the monsoons so that we could store the maximum when the rain came. We cannot do that anymore.

Is the problem the spread of rainfall, or the way it is stored?

The macro availability is not the problem. We still receive 1,000 mm of rainfall ever year, but the monsoon is increasingly losing its regularity. It is not the regular rainfall we have been used to. While we may be getting the same amount of rainfall, regional variations are far more common and extreme, and some areas are getting far less water than they need.

There is the dominant trend to build big dams to manage the water, but there are three basic problems. Firstly, the best sites for big dams have already been utilised. Secondly, big dams take a very long time to build. Thirdly, and most importantly, the challenge of land acquisition, with the attendant costs, conflicts, and political difficulties, makes this a prohibitive venture.

My view is that we must pay attention to small structures like ponds, tanks and wells, which used to be revered, but have been neglected over the last few decades. The utility of these small structures becomes more important when we consider the way that different regions – even those close together – have been getting disparate amounts of rainfall.

The government has been talking about the need to revive traditional water harvesting. Officials from your department have been going around the country to see how this can be done. What are the preliminary findings?

The good news is that the old structures still exist and can be revived. They have been encroached upon, silted over, or become dumping grounds. But as I recently saw myself about some wells in Banda, in Uttar Pradesh, once these are cleared, the pores of the aquifers are reopened, and the wells begin to function again.

Community participation is a must for water management. What is an aquifer to a villager? How does he or she know how it works if it has not been explained? How will people know how much water is under their land? They have no way to know if they are running out of water. Only if people know can we have paani panchayats (water governance bodies at the village level) and do proper water budgeting.

When people know, they can act.

Hiware Bazar, in Maharashtra, receives only 400 mm of rain per year, but they manage through proper water budgeting. They have moved most of their cropping to drip irrigation, and it works. We have to involve communities to make this a success.

What are the initial steps?

We are undertaking a comprehensive mapping under the National Aquifer Mapping Programme. Out of 3.2 million square kilometres of the country’s area, 2.5 million square kilometres can be mapped. 1.2 million of this has been mapped, and we plan to show the areas that are overexploited by March 2020. By March 2021, the rest should be done.

We need to focus on springs as well. They have not received the attention they deserve considering they are responsible for 20% of our drinking water; 50% of the springs in the Himalayan region have either dried up, or gone from being perennial to seasonal. It requires some help in finding the right recharge areas for springs and this has to be done scientifically, but once the recharge area has been identified the structures can be done by village labour under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Work in the states of Sikkim and Uttarakhand has shown success, and this should be extended to a national programme for spring rejuvenation.

What are the big challenges you’re facing?

The most important, and difficult, challenge for us is managing the demand side of the water issue. Currently water has no value to people, and it is not just because of a lack of pricing, but also because of incentives like free or subsidised electricity (leading to excessive pumping up of groundwater). Punjab, which has huge reservoirs like the Bhakra Nangal dam, still gets 77% of its (irrigation) water from groundwater.

Much of this has to do with state procurement of paddy and wheat, which guarantees a certain set price and a steady market. This has skewed cropping patterns. The state (Punjab government) has tried a new scheme called “Paani bachao, paise bachao” (Save water, save money), where the farmers are reimbursed for the electricity they do not use for water. Instead of paying the electricity distribution company, the state gives the same money to the farmer. It does not save the money for the state, but it does save water.

In Haryana they have converted about 50,000 hectares (500 sq. km) from paddy to maize, using cash incentives and helping save irrigation water.

How are these, or other models by NGOs, to be scaled up and scaled out?

It is the states that have to take the lead on this. The speeches and push by the Prime Minister will have an impact, and the Centre can prioritise issues, but water is a state subject, and it will have to be handled in a participatory mode. The PM recently gave a presentation to Member of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies on water. This has helped create awareness, and the MPs and MLAs have responded by talking about how they have utilised the MPLADs and MLALADs (discretionary funds allocated to MPs and MLAs for development work in their constituencies) for work on water resources.

The challenge remains in scaling these initiatives, and managing the demand side. Many people are under the incorrect impression that micro-irrigation (using sprinklers and drip irrigation pipes) only works for a few crops. We have to show the results to farmers everywhere. We can’t take everybody to Hiware Bazar and show them how water budgeting has worked there. It is necessary to create a Hiware Bazar in every state so that there can be an example close at hand.

This will require participation not only by states but also the many NGOs working on these issues. There are funding agencies and the corporate social responsibility funds of the water intensive industries. These need to be brought together.

We also need a policy to recycle and reuse water. So far only Gujarat has one. Maharashtra has a water regulatory body, which other states could look at, although it is only for the industries, and a lot more than that needs to be covered.

The current government’s election manifesto has promised piped water to every rural household by 2024. How practical is that?

We can lay the pipes. But the question is, will there be water in those pipes? To ensure that, we have to have a major push for rainwater harvesting and water conservation.

For years, there has been talk of interlinking India’s rivers, despite objections by independent experts. Is that scheme still on the table?

While river interlinking has been discussed, it remains a very difficult issue. It is not just the scale and cost of the challenge, as well as the impact on wildlife and the environment, but the political consensus is very hard. No state (government) wants to say it is water surplus, no state wants to give away its water. Moreover it is a matter of when you have the surplus. During the monsoons every state has more than enough water (except in drought conditions) and so the question will be to build storage. Where will we build the reservoirs, and if we are to take water out of the Godavari basin to put in the Cauvery basin, for example, which of the states in the Godavari basin will agree to give up their share?

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