Ensuring water security

Paul Abraham | Updated on April 15, 2021

The govt, corporates and communities must work together

The global water crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing humankind. The crisis is manifesting due to the progressive decline in availability, rampant misuse of the precious resource and societal inability to deliver water where it is needed.

India’s tryst with fighting the water crisis began with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. While providing health and sanitation facilities to each household, it soon became clear that water security was an essential component for the success of the project. With this insight, the government launched the ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission (Rural) in 2019 and Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban) in 2020.

This problem has to be addressed at various levels.

Stock of water: Most of the water that is being accessed across the country is groundwater and recharging the underground aquifers is paramount. The country gets around four months of monsoon and harvesting the rainwater must become a national mission. It is crucial to invest in restoring water bodies and creating millions of ponds and percolation tanks to capture the rainwater.

Corrective action required to reverse effects of climate change like glacial melting is inherently slow paced and some water sources like rivers are going to be lost to us in the near term. Rampant deforestation has created scarcity due to the sources originating in forests drying up. Increasing forest cover is key to restoring the health of our riverine systems.

Use of water: The largest demand on water is from agriculture. Judicious use of water for agriculture is key to managing the water challenge.

Micro irrigation is crucial to reducing wastage caused by inefficient use. It is estimated that micro irrigation can save 40 per cent of the consumption from current levels.

Water-intensive crops like sugarcane, paddy, cotton and banana are cultivated in districts which are severely water stressed. Sugarcane, for instance, is grown in one of the most water-stressed areas of Maharashtra. As is the case with paddy in Punjab. It is imperative that geographic assessments be made and urgent realignments of crop mix undertaken.

It is time now to price water to all consumers. A rational pricing structure of an economic resource that is not unlimited is essential. It will incentivise investments in the sector.

There’s a need to invest in technology that provides clean and safe drinking water through methods that do not require regular maintenance and upkeep. This way, the longevity of these solutions increases and extends availability.

Access to water: In the larger scheme of things, the worst affected by this crisis are women and children. Children are more prone to water-borne diseases and women spend hours walking daily to fulfil the water requirements of their family, collectively estimated at 200 million hours each day. The Centre has been proactive by providing capital allocation towards social welfare schemes, apportioning ₹2.87-lakh crore for safe drinking water in the latest Union Budget.

Issues like bacterial and chemical toxicity have affected almost all the water sources, and these need to be addressed. Irresponsible sewage treatment, garbage disposal and industrial effluent discharge must also be addressed on a war footing. Water efficient toilet systems are required as well.

More than 600 million people have bee affected due to lack of access to safe drinking water. The corollary to the distribution issue being addressed through piped water shouldn’t be the absence of water stock to distribute. It is essential to drive these efforts with investments in superior project management capabilities with visible and measurable outcomes.

Education and training: Education on the importance of water and initiatives like rainwater harvesting and groundwater conservation is key. Schools need to have this embedded in their curriculum and CSR budgets should be used to create advocacy around the subject of water.

The initiatives must be community driven, as this increasing the chances of these resources being actively sustained. The Pani Samitis are a great example of how to manage at the micro level.

Access to safe water is not a privilege but a fundamental right. Corporate houses, communities and the government need to work together to ensure that this resource is protected, preserved and distributed equitably amongst all.

The writer is President, Hinduja Foundation

Published on April 15, 2021

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