Making water a national priority

6 min read
piped water supply to households

Our water challenge requires commitment, an appreciation of the complexity of the problem and periodic doses of realism to ensure that we get it right. 

It often seems, as if the root cause of our water woes is actually a health issue. Short-term memory loss. The onset of monsoon wipes out our memory of water scarcity in the summer. Floods make us forget that our water woes do not just pertain to scarcity but excess as well. Long-term memory loss. We never seem to remember that this is a cycle repeating itself every year, and has been progressively getting worse over the past seven decades. 

The acute shortage of water in some of our cities has overshadowed scarcities in several parts of rural India. Scarcity within cities or across rural India is not new, since inequity in access and availability of water is a reality that the urban poor and those in drought prone/water scarce parts of rural India have had to learn to cope with over years. Not just in the summer, but during the year too, with women and adolescent girls having to endure the worst of this. 

Our cities may very well run out of water, but will the wealthy residents of urban India run out of water? No. Our planners and governments will continue to transport water from rural parts to our cities to supply subsidised water, at increasing costs. Urban versus rural. Urban will win!  

Water a national priority

Clearly, the new government has recognised the enormity of the problem and made water a priority. The formation of Jal Shakti Ministry, letters by the Prime Minister to the elected head of every Gram Panchayat exhorting them to focus on water conservation, the recently launched Jal Shakti Abhiyan and the budgetary allocation of INR 10,000 Crores for this year, are clear signs of the intent. If a movement on water conservation were to be launched country wide, involving the average citizens of this country, rural or urban, then this is the moment. A Prime Minister who can make sanitation everyone’s business, will surely find it easier to mobilise people around water.  

The policy emphasis on water seems to have two dimensions. First, on water conservation with an immediate push to conserve as much of the rainfall from our monsoon this year, as possible. The subsequent plans to sustain this are not clear, but time will tell. The urgency to respond is clear. Second is the ambition to ensure that every household in the country has access to piped water supply by 2024. A massive undertaking given that the proportion of rural households with piped water supply is currently estimated at 18%. 

Groundwater extraction and its price

We are the largest extractor of groundwater in the world. A significant portion of the needs of urban India is met from groundwater. A little over 80% of ground water in India is used by agriculture alone. Can water security in rural India improve without ensuring efficiency in water use by agriculture? No. This will require significant political will and incentives or penalties to drive this efficiency. Even attempts at regulating groundwater extraction will be a challenge without administrative and political will. 
Groundwater is free. The cost of water does not figure in the value of products produced using them. There are no incentives to use it judiciously. For the rest, we are all beneficiaries of subsidised water, which inhibits both conservation and efficient use. One of the reasons why rainwater harvesting has not grown is because of this. Until we recognise the true cost of water, we will not value it and conserve it. 

Large cities in India have utilities responsible for water and sanitation. In other towns, municipalities are responsible for these services. In rural India, it could be the Public Health Engineering Department or Rural Development or Panchayati Raj departments. Are the institutions responsible for delivery of sanitation and water related services financially viable? No. Do they have the skills and capacities to address complex challenges of ensuring access to assured water – whether from water found on the surface, groundwater, and harvested rainwater or through recycling or reuse? No. Do we invest adequately in the skills and capacities of our urban local bodies or gram panchayats to be able to plan, design, implement and manage water conservation or drinking water projects? No. In the absence of an investment in the institutions that are responsible to ensure safe and assured water, we cannot solve this problem. 

Piped water supply by 2024

The ambition to provide every household in India with piped water supply by 2024 is an audacious goal. Getting the pipes in place is the least of our worries. In attempting this, six key areas will need focus: 

  1. The source of water has to be sustainable. To ensure this, we need to harvest rainwater and store it for our use or use it to recharge our aquifers. Restoring lakes, tanks and ponds not just by desilting them appropriately, but also by clearing their drainage channels and removing encroachments are crucial for decentralised storage and groundwater recharge. The catchments of our aquifers and springs (in hilly areas) need identification, protection and should be the focal point for our water conservation efforts. Not just engineering measures but by using vegetation – grasses, shrubs and trees. 
  2. Without a plan and adequate investment in operation and maintenance, schemes will fail. There needs to be clarity on which institution will do so and they need to have the people and the finances to be able to manage these. The electricity requirement for ensuring piped water supply to every household is going to be massive and will require recurring costs. Pricing of water will become crucial to ensure management of systems. 
  3. Piped water supply that is not safe makes little sense. Robust systems to treat chemical and bacterial contamination and monitoring of water quality will be required. 
  4. If every household receives piped water supply, then the amount of wastewater generated will increase exponentially. Water from bathrooms, kitchens etc. In the absence of measures to treat this, our existing low-lying areas will become sinks for this water and the risks of further contamination of our groundwater will increase. 
  5. We need measurement and standards. Meters to provide assurance that households are actually receiving water as per the standards. In the absence of measurement, the performance of service providers cannot be assessed and citizens cannot hold the service providers accountable. 
  6. Given the complexity of the issues around water, to ensure piped water supply to every household by 2024 will require significant investment in building capacities at all levels, in generating demand, in mobilising communities for collective action around conservation, management and monitoring. This is a role that the voluntary sector can play, like has been done in the past with the Adult Literacy Campaign, Lok Jumbish or Shiksha Karmi and the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation’s efforts.  

Big, hairy audacious goals, a tight time-frame and a campaign mode backed by political commitment at the highest level make a difference in India. However, we also need to remind ourselves constantly of another peculiar health problem that we are prone to – Targetitis. In a federal structure and a country the size and diversity of India, this leads to all kinds of perverse incentives downstream. Our water challenge requires commitment, an appreciation of the complexity of the problem and periodic doses of realism to ensure that we get it right. 

VK Madhavan is the Chief Executive at WaterAid India.