At 1.4 billion, India accounts 17.5 per cent of the world’s population but has only 4 per cent of the fresh water resources. The per capita annual fresh water availability has gone down from 5177 cu m (1951) to 1486 cu m (2019) (see Table). Thus India is a water stressed country; out of 766 districts, 256 are water stressed. By 2050, India is likely to experience water scarcity.

Among the G20 countries, India’s per capita GDP is the lowest. India aspires to become the second largest economy by 2047. This will have an enormous impact on the use of water resources by various stakeholders. India receives water during monsoon and from the melting of ice.

Rainfall is erratic and the data (1990-2021) show that about 30 per cent of the districts received less than normal South-West monsoon rainfall in 20 out of 32 years. This tendency is likely to increase in the coming years due to global warming and climate change.

The water sector hasn’t seen the kind of far-reaching reforms the electricity and telecom sectors have witnessed.. Water management is beset by bureaucratic hurdles, there’s lack of equity in water access, and British common law, especially in giving unlimited power of groundwater withdrawal to the owner of land (Article 7(g) of Easement Act 1882), is still followed.

Cooperative federalism in water governance, adoption of multidisciplinary expertise, bridging silos in water sector, and building multi-stakeholder partnership are the need of the hour.

G20 experience

Recent meetings of G20 countries discussed innovations in water management in the areas of water use efficiency (Turkey, the UK, Saudi Arabia, India); river rejuvenation (Australia, China, France, India, South Africa); climate resilient infrastructure (the UK and the US); safe drinking water (Germany, India, Mexico); water supply augmentation (Saudi Arabia); efficient water governance (Japan, Saudi Arabia); waste water management (India, Saudi Arabia); watershed management (Australia, Saudi Arabia); and and groundwater management (China and Slovakia). These approaches are worth emulating. Although per capita annual renewable water is 67 cu m (2019) in Saudi Arabia, it has one of the highest per capita income in the world. In 2018, the country developed National Water Strategy (NWS) 2030 based on integrated water resources management approach.

The objective was to attain water availability, comply with quality, achieve environmental and economic sustainability and affordability, and reform the water and wastewater sectors to ensure the development of water resources. The strategy was taken up by restructuring of the water sector to increase efficiency, setting regulations, building capacity, and increasing reliability.

Under the NWS, a few sector agencies were positioned for improved water management: (a) the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture is given the overall in-charge of developing sector strategy, managing surface and ground water resources, and ensuring that all the water agencies work together; (b) the bulk water supply agency is the Saline Water Conversion Corporation which is responsible for desalinated water production and transmission to major urban areas; (c) the Water Technology and Transmission Company will own and operate long distance water transmission network; (d) the National Water Company deals with national water including wastewater as a utility; (e) the Saudi Water Partnership Company deals with build, operate and transfer contracts, wastewater treatment plants, water transmission lines and water storage facilities; (f) the Saudi Irrigation Organisation is in charge of building up of the country’s irrigation infrastructure, and developing the wastewater reuse sector, and (g) there is an overarching water regulator for regulating water management within the sector including setting water tariffs.

The adoption of NWS has resulted in reduction of agricultural use of non-renewable groundwater resources from 20.6 bcm (2017) to 9.7 bcm (2022), and there is an increase in reuse of water from 17 per cent of total treated wastewater to 24 per cent (2022).

Agenda for action

In India, water is a State subject except inter-State regulation of rivers which, as per the Constitution of India, is under Central purview. Therefore, any water sector restructuring should be mainly at the State level with proper overview by the Central Government. An institutional mechanism covering the Centre and States should be created to work for cooperative federalism in water governance. The existing National Water Resource Council should be revamped.

Second, the water agencies established in Saudi Arabia are worth emulating given that rainfall is erratic due to global warming. For example, establishing institutions akin to those set up by Saudi Arabia may enable India achieve higher irrigation water use efficiency, better treatment of wastewater and their use, greater private sector participation in water sector, etc.

Third, there is a need to introduce an overarching institution for regulating the entire water sector at the State level. At present, out of 28 States, only a few have water regulators. Their jurisdiction on the overall performance of the water sector is not comprehensive, and their core functions such as tariff regulation, checking quality of service and monitoring compliance, monitoring the utility’s financial viability, adjudication of disputes, consumer protection, and enforcement of licencing conditions are not explicit. A model water regulatory framework should be developed for adoption by various States, and they should be incentivised for early introduction of water regulators.

Finally, the existing institutions operating at the Central State levels need to examined. At Central level, the CWC (Central Water Commission) and CGWB (Central Ground Water Board) need to be restructured to ensure multidisciplinary expertise with various divisions reflecting various water priorities. States should also examine their varied water institutions/ departments for sustainable water resource management in the States. This approach will enable India to achieve various Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources