To achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, water-related goals are one of the most challenging to attain. They deal with an entire gamut of objectives: universal access to safe and affordable drinking water; access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, including an end to open defecation; improvement of water quality by reducing pollution and eliminating dumping of hazardous chemicals and materials; halving the proportion of untreated waste water by increasing its recycling and reuse.

In short, it means putting in place integrated water resources management in all spheres, including arresting the depletion of ground water, protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems such as wetlands, aquifers, lakes, rivers and even the mountains and forests.

Groundwater depletion

Due to the country’s rainfall pattern and low surface storage, around 63 per cent of India’s irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater. The last few decades have been the worst on this count as they have seen intense exploitation of groundwater for every activity — agriculture, industrial production and urban development. According to the government’s own admission, this has led to high levels of depletion of groundwater in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. These seven States together represent about 25 per cent of the total number of over-exploited, critical, and semi-critical blocks in terms of groundwater in the country.

In May 2018, a National Groundwater Management Improvement Programme (NGMIP), christened Atal Bhujal Yojana, was approved to help reduce groundwater level decline and improve groundwater resources in selected States. The objective of this five-year-long, ₹6,000-crore, World Bank-assisted programme is to arrest the country’s depleting groundwater levels and strengthen groundwater institutions. Last week, on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 95th birth anniversary, the initiative was formally launched to improve groundwater management in 8,350 villages of 78 districts in the seven States.

To tackle water-related issues, in May 2019, a new umbrella Ministry of Jal Shakti was formed by merging the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation.

A month later, a country-wide water security and conservation campaign was launched — the Jal Shakti Abhiyan. However, there have been no targets announced that need to be achieved to gauge its efficacy, not even in the 256 water-stressed districts where groundwater availability has reached critical levels.

The one area where a target has been set is under the Jal Jeevan Mission. The government has promised piped water supply to all rural households by 2024. Experts, however, feel that more critical than piped water to households is water security, which can be achieved by going all out to put in place extensive water harvesting in the stressed areas.

There is also demand from environmentalists for a comprehensive waste water policy for both urban and rural areas. Industry consumes around 12 per cent water in the country and its sustainable use, reuse and recycling could make a substantial difference.

The bottom line, say experts, is recognising that only people’s participation can strengthen both water and sanitation management.