Improving water resources: A crucial condition for socio-economic development and well-being of communities in India

Water is the means through which climate change is impacting the Earth’s ecosystem. Consecutive years of extreme climatic events in India have negatively impacted on the quality and quantity of India’s ground and surface water. Shifting patterns of seasonal precipitation, extended dry periods and an increase in atmospheric temperature have jeopardised life in about half of the country’s districts.

Women filling water from a local source in their village
Women filling water from a local source in their village

In all, 600 million Indians are facing extreme water stress as indicated in a report by NITI Aayog. There has been an unprecedented rise in incidences of droughts, floods, crop loss and scarcity of safe drinking water for humans as well as cattle. In most cases, children, especially girls, are the first to get affected as resources allocated for their well-being like education is withdrawn and healthcare and nutrition get affected. In some circumstances, children are even forced into labour or early marriage and grow further susceptible to being trafficked. Many children face an increased risk to their safety when access to potable water and sanitation is difficult.

As per the World Bank’s projection, India will not achieve a GDP growth of 8% until water resources are conserved and utilised judiciously. Most state governments have the right policies in place, however, desired outcomes can only be achieved when every stakeholder is allowed to participate and contribute effectively to the cause. In recent times, the government has shown its intent of prioritising issues of water and sanitation through various schemes and programmes like the National Watershed Development Programme, National Rural Drinking Water Programme, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, among others. Substantive work on ensuring universal access to sanitation has been undertaken, which has been acknowledged and welcomed by one and all. However, work on safeguarding and securing our water resources is yet to receive any acknowledgement.

Children washing hands at a tap in school
Children washing hands at a tap in school

Departments like the Watershed Development, Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation, are most often plagued by a shortage of skilled human resource; the available staff is also reluctant to work in remote rural areas. There is also a lack of horizontal linkages and coordination among various departments and agencies namely, soil conservation, forestry, agriculture, etc. All this results in a top town approach with a preference for conserving and harvesting water in drainage lines to be used for irrigation or to replenish groundwater, rather than rehabilitation of the upper catchment areas, as experienced in existing watershed development projects.

In order for change to come about, there is an urgent need to shift the approach from the mere construction of infrastructure to the construction of climate resilient infrastructure, that too in close coordination with communities and all relevant agencies including civil society and government departments.

Civil Society Organisations that have the knowledge and expertise to work on community-based models and are aware of historical facts should be given the opportunity to lead the implementation with respective government departments providing resources, technical institutions providing the know-how, and the decision making and monitoring could lie with the Gram Panchayat. To rejuvenate all existing water sources and its catchment in a phased manner, it is essential to prioritise enhancement of local capacities, including developing a cadre of barefoot engineers with the involvement of relevant technical training agencies. Resources under various government schemes or programmes could thus be optimally utilised for the desired outcome; additional funding can be channelled from corporates, multinationals, and other agencies.

A Farmers rely on irrigation for their crops
Farmers rely on irrigation for their crops

Existing technical groups, networks and alliances of different national and internal agencies involved in community-based water and sanitation projects can also be accessed for exchanging information and cross-learning, which will help to create stronger and more accountable institutions to engage the community with right based approach to plan integrated management of water and adjust to changes in water availability during extreme weather events.

Water is perhaps the most valuable resource available on Earth. It is imperative that we acknowledge its value and critical to ensure that every person has access to safe and clean water. Access to water should be considered a basic human right. There is much to be done on this front; with support from individuals, communities and various departments, it is definitely possible.

Written by: Dr. Nabaneeta Rudra, Senior Technical Advisor – WASH, Plan India