Water management in times of scarcity
by Nithin Sridhar on 27 Apr 2009 7 Comments

As World Water Day passed almost unnoticed last month (22 March), I recalled a seminar I attended in that connection. Programmes like these are regularly held by concerned social activists on and off in major cities across the world. But is anybody listening?

Today, we are in a situation of water scarcity. Deaths due to water scarcity and water-borne diseases are increasing day by day.

Water, water, everywhere,/Nor any drop to drink

These words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” resurfaced in a more riveting context in the seminar on “Integrated Water Resource Management for Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation,” organised by the Karnataka Environment Research Foundation (KERF), Bangalore, and National Institute of Engineering - Centre For Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies (NIE-CREST), Mysore, last month.

Recently, the Supreme Court took note of the water crisis and issued notice to the Ministry of Science and Technology to furnish details regarding steps taken to solve the problem of water shortage. The Bench comprising Mr. Justices Markandey Katju and B. Sudarshan Reddy passed interim orders on a writ filed by advocate M.K. Balakrishnan, seeking protection of wetlands for preservation of the environment and ecology.

There is an acute water shortage in India and one main reason is that all water resources have been encroached upon in recent times by commercially-driven persons who have filled up the water bodies and raised buildings and shops. Our ancestors were wise people who provided for the possibility of droughts. To harvest water, they constructed ponds and tanks attached to temples so that people did not suffer.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten the wisdom of our ancestors. Hence the severe water shortage in summer months, often leading to roadblocks, chakka jam and traffic blocks by agitated citizens. The Supreme Court has already directed the Centre to constitute a committee of experts to solve the water shortage. The Ministry of Science and Technology is to furnish details of steps taken to solve the water shortage by 28 April 2009.

Integrated water resources management (IWRM) involves making decisions and taking action from multiple viewpoints so that water is managed best. This means integrating social, environmental and technical aspects. Some principal components include: 

• Managing water resources at the basin or watershed scale. 

• Optimizing supply: conducting assessments of surface and groundwater supplies, analyzing water balances, adopting wastewater reuse, and evaluating the environmental impacts of distribution and use options.

• Managing demand: adopting cost recovery policies, utilizing water-efficient technologies, and establishing decentralized water management authorities.

• Providing equitable access to water resources through participatory and transparent governance and management, including support for effective water users’ associations, involvement of marginalized groups, and consideration of gender issues.

• Establishing improved and integrated policy, regulatory, and institutional frameworks: implementation of the polluter-pays principle, water quality norms and standards, and market-based regulatory mechanisms.

• Utilizing an inter-sectoral approach to decision-making, where authority for managing water resources is employed responsibly and stakeholders have a share in the process.

In the present water crisis, the seminar facilitated interaction between teachers, students and NGOs, notable being Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) and Chaitanya Rural Education Society.

Dr. Rajashekara Murthy, president KERF, recollected the history of water management from water withdrawal without changing natural sources before 2000 BC, to withdrawal and socio-economic impacts of dams and large-scale water diversion schemes, environmental- ecological impacts and contemporary technologies. Throughout civilisation, human beings have manipulated and exploited water resources. At times, localised water problems (epidemic, sewage) have aggravated as globalised problems like pollution, acidification and global warming. There is need of new ideas and methods to deal with water scarcity, which is increasing daily due to industrialisation and urbanisation. People are concerned about supply, but don’t pay attention to management and effective utilisation.

Over one billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water and 2.4 billion don’t have access to sanitation (mostly in Africa and Asia). Nearly 30%-40% of the world population uses less than 50 litres per head per day to meet fundamental human needs. We need to cover every aspect of the water scenario: human health, ecosystem health, sustainable use and economy, hazards and environmental prediction, global water commitments, following Agenda 21 (1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, where the World Water Day was first formally proposed)
http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/documents/agenda21/english/agenda21chapter18.htm and Dublin principles http://www.gwpforum.org/servlet/PSP?iNodeID=1345

At present, the government’s efforts are not sufficiently integrated and there is lack of accessible, policy-relevant science and information. Dr. Murthy outlined an alternative approach to water management, called the “soft path,” which can reduce water consumption from 72 gallons per head per day to 49 gallons per head per day. Its salient features are:

• Attempt to improve overall productivity of water use rather than seek endless sources of water supply

• While relying on centralized infrastructure, complement it with extensive investment in decentralized facilities: efficient technologies and human resources

• Work with stakeholders at local and community levels

• Demand management: End-use efficiency affects both ends of the pipe: water supply side and wastewater discharge and treatment side

• Utility based measures: Leak detection and repair water mains, promote conservation based price structures, effective watershed management to reduce water losses and water reclamation.

Soft path practices can emerge through:

• Leadership by small communities in blending water and wastewater into a pragmatic, long-term vision of development 

• Adoption by urban utilities, motivated by water shortages and high costs of replacing hard path infrastructure, of integrated approaches to restore and preserve a natural water “mass balance” 

• Refinement of innovative technologies for rainwater retention/filtration, waste water treatment, and reuse on individual properties or in cluster systems 

• Reform of planning and regulations to promote more flexible, integrated water and infrastructure development.

Economists argue that water prices will encourage water conservation if correctly designed and enforced. Water-use charges, pollution charges, tradable permits for water withdrawals or release of specific pollutants and fines are market-based approaches that can contribute to making water more accessible, healthier and more sustainable long term. One particular area of water policy increasingly subject to pricing principles is the public water supply and wastewater services.

Efficient and effective water pricing systems provide incentives for efficient water use and for water quality protection. They also generate funds for infrastructure development and expansion, and provide a good basis for ensuring that water services can be provided to all citizens at an affordable price. The metering of water consumption is a prerequisite for the application of efficient water pricing policies. However, the experts felt water should not be privatized, commoditised, traded or exported in bulk for commercial purposes.

Dr. P.S. Srikantamurthy, Dept of Agricultural Economics, UAS, GKVK, Bangalore, explained how changing dietary patters could help reduce water consumption. For example, ragi consumes less water than rice, and is more nutritious. He spoke about hidden or virtual water, the amount of water utilised in producing a product. Current food production must double in the next 25 years and 60% of it must come from irrigated land. Due to unreliable supply of water, farmers use bore wells. India has 17 million irrigation wells and 70% use groundwater. India withdraws groundwater at twice the recharge rate.

Hence the aim of IWRM is:

• to provide sufficient domestic water round the year, especially in peak summer, for all sections of rural and urban population;

• to provide as much irrigation as possible with the remaining water; and

• to minimize losses, as far as possible, of both water quality and water quantity

Prof. M. Shekar, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, spoke at length about the depletion and contamination of groundwater, which damages the eco-system, as does increased pumping. The total number of mechanised wells has risen from 1 million in 1960 to 21 million in 2005.

Groundwater continues to serve as a reliable source of water for a variety of purposes, including industrial and domestic uses and irrigation. The use of generally high quality groundwater for irrigation dwarfs all other uses (Burke, 2002). In many developing countries, reliance has turned to dependency and the establishment of perceptions of access and use that are intensely ‘private,’ irrespective of the legal status of the groundwater. 

The impact of over-abstraction on the water level can lead to a wide array of social, economic and environmental consequences including:

• critical changes in patterns of groundwater flow to and from adjacent aquifer systems;

• decline in stream base flows, wetlands, etc. with consequent damage to ecosystems and downstream users;

• increased pumping costs and energy usage;

• land subsidence and damage to surface infrastructure;

• reduction in access to water for drinking, irrigation and other uses

There is thus a need for micro-scale mapping, collecting data and analyzing them at micro levels. There is also need for collaborative initiatives, basic research and rethinking our approach to groundwater.

Prof. M. Sudhakara Rao, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, explained how water quality deteriorated due to domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution and geological contamination. The presence of excessive fluoride in water led to fluorosis, which can be treated by the Nalgonda Technique, Activated Alumina Technique and IISc technique of treatment of fluoride

There can be little doubt that the Indian public needs a far greater awareness about water related issues and the need for integrated water management.

The author is a student of civil engineering, Mysore

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