Sustainable development of water is especially important for India which has 18 per cent of the global population but shares only 4 per cent of its freshwater. But does it mean that we as a country have a shortage of water resources? As a matter of fact, India is not inherently a country with water shortage. Compared to the global annual average water receipt of 100 cm, India gets 120 cm through rain and snow.
We need to carefully understand the water scenario in India. A major factor is the rainfall pattern in India which is mostly concentrated within four months (June-September), unlike many countries which get some rain almost year-round. The challenge is what you do with such a large quantity of water pouring in a short duration–how do you store, how do you use it to recharge ground water, how do you reduce the run-off with depleting natural vegetation so as not to lose this water too fast to sea. Literally, we need to ‘catch the rain’. We also have a great diversity in rainfall across the country from very scanty rainfall in Jaisalmer to copious rains in Meghalaya needing locally relevant strategies as can also be seen from traditional coping mechanisms.
As it is, almost 90cm of rain on an average flows into the sea. There are challenges of storage and as large dams and reservoirs are limited, we need to have well-spread local sources. That’s where the water bodies have a crucial role to play in national water security.
There are demand side problems too. We have a very low (less than 40 per cent) water use efficiency in agriculture which consumes most of the water resources. We need to, however, improve our water use efficiency in all sectors and not only in agriculture. Very little is stored in water bodies (lakes, ponds, and man-made reservoirs) or percolates down to underground water aquifers. If much of it is saved and used to recharge water bodies, India can remove at least part of its water scarcity.
For the first time now, there is a national database on water bodies that can help people’s participation in an area traditionally left to the state or private agencies. Thanks to a national census of water bodies in the country conducted by the Department for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation as part of the sixth Minor Irrigation Census, we not only know the number and kinds of water bodies but also about several other features such as who owns them, with water bodies defined as natural or manmade units bound on all sides by some or no masonry work used for storing water for irrigation or other purposes.
The census collected the information on all important aspects of the water bodies including their type, condition, ownership, status of encroachments, use, storage capacity, and status of filling up of storage. It covered the water bodies located in rural as well as urban areas that are in use or not in use.
According to the census, of the 2.4 million water bodies in the country, 55.2 per cent are owned by private entities whereas the rest are in the domain of public ownership. Of all public-owned water bodies, the maximum water bodies are owned by panchayats, followed by State Irrigation/State Water Resource Departments. Of all privately-owned water bodies, maximum water bodies are in the hands of individual owners/farmers followed by a group of individuals and other private bodies.
There are other important aspects of the census. Among them:
- One out of every six water bodies is lying in disuse because of low water stock, encroachment, pollution or salinity. If these are recharged, they can be used for all purposes.
- Only one in 10 water bodies in the country has water fit for drinking or other domestic uses. The rest are used for pisciculture, irrigation, and other such purposes.
- 90.1 per cent of the ‘in use’ water bodies fulfil requirements of up to 100 people and in terms of benefits to cities/ towns, 88.6 per cent water bodies benefit one city/ town/ village. These water bodies can be expanded to serve larger populations. This can be communicated to the owners of the water bodies, and a certain cost attached to it to make it financially attractive. Already, there are several instances of water from bore wells being transacted at the farm level.
- Also, nearly 60 per cent of the water bodies are less than three-fourths full, and 7 per cent are nearly empty. These can be topped up.
- India has 40,000 water bodies that are encroached upon by farming or construction. These water bodies can be released for use.
- The census envisages that this database would be useful in different fields such as serving as an authentic dataset for estimating recharge of groundwater, implementation of Atal Bhujal Yojna, preparation of realistic water security plans, assessment of Gram Panchayat-wise water budget, spatial analysis of distribution of abstraction structure coordinates and assessment of ground water draft. The data may help in understanding farm level irrigation and water management as well as water trading, if any. There is increased awareness for water conservation as well as management at the level of Government of India, State governments and several NGOs, Community based organisations and corporates are also actively contributing. The Jal Shakti Abhiyan from 2019, Amrut Sarovar Yojna from 2022 have brought increased attention for conservation of water bodies at the local level. The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT 2.0) has allocated funds for protection and rejuvenation of urban water bodies.
Several states have launched schemes focussed on these aspects. Odisha has innovative ways of involving women Self Help Groups (SHGs) in adaptive management of village ponds–an important component of the rural economy linking it with aquatic food and in collaboration with partner institutions. Odisha was ranked second in the best state category and Ganjam district was first in the best district category in the National Water Awards, 2023. Madhya Pradesh was declared first in overall water management in these awards. Haryana has set up The Pond and Waste Water Management Authority. In Uttar Pradesh, there is special attention on reviving the traditional tanks of Bundelkhand with remarkable work by NGOs and impressive work under the Jal Saheli initiative. The state is also collaborating with Israel to improve water management in the region. Several water conservation activities are taking place in different parts of the country. There is need to document the best practices and develop platforms for experience sharing and knowledge management. Several cities like Chennai and Bengaluru are incorporating rejuvenation of water bodies in urban and peri-urban areas through the reuse of treated water from city Sewage Treatment Plants. This is also included in the National Framework for Reuse of Treated Water launched by the Ministry of Jal Shakti. The Delhi Government has undertaken to rejuvenate 240 water bodies in the state under its City of Lakes project. Launched in 2018, this is intended to enhance groundwater recharge and contribute to fighting scarcity.
A field study on this census can further help in improving our understanding of different parameters of the census and their larger implications as well as utilising its full potential. This would also help in strengthening the process of conducting a census in future. The following aspects can be elaborated upon by the field study:
A. A significant portion of the water bodies being privately owned needs to be explored in detail in a field study and fully understood along with implications for their use and conservation.
B. The census reports information on the existing use of water bodies, listing six categories. However, it does not clearly include data on water quality status. This can cause difficulties in the prioritisation of restoration efforts.
C. If a source is in use, but is contaminated, and this information is not captured, then it can deprive these water bodies from seeking funds and making efforts to improve them. There may be some added value for helping restoration if we recognise biodiversity and ecosystem services as one of the “in use” functions. These points need to be elaborated upon in the census process.
D. For the first time waterbodies in urban areas have also been taken up. A field study can help in improving understanding as well as connecting with urban management efforts.
It may be useful if a field study is conducted to validate the data in a selected area and draw suitable lessons. The aim of such study should also be to explore some other aspects such as
- Analyse ownership pattern of the water bodies with special attention on analysis of privately owned water bodies. These questions should be enquired into to fully understand the ownership aspect. :
a. What is the ownership pattern (public vs private, multiple owners, individual vs organizational ownership) in water bodies? How has it changed over the years?
b. What’s the legal position on privately owned water bodies? Entry in revenue records, history of litigation, reason for change in position – hereditary or purchase.
c. Are privately owned bodies better maintained?
- Capture the traditional wisdom and practices in water bodies conservation
- Link the water bodies with Government schemes and flagship missions
a) Mapping of these water bodies with identified sources under the Jal Jeevan Mission
b) Utilisation and convergence of government schemes for repair, renovation, and development of water bodies.
c) Potential of these water bodies for fisheries and possibility of linkage with PM Matsya Sampada Yojna
- Study the water quality aspect of the water bodies.
- Analyse different parameters of water body census in urban areas including the pattern in the peri urban areas, special threats to water bodies in urban areas by pollution, and encroachment. It can also be studied as to how much is the contribution of these water bodies for drinking water sources for the city. Similarly, we can find
about allocation and utilisation of funds for protection, conservation of urban water bodies under AMRUT 2.0 and Swachh Bharat Mission (U) 2.0 and also explore how the master plans deal with them.
Healthy waterbodies have an important role to play in the goal of ensuring water security. They are even more crucial in the light of climate change. The protection and rejuvenation of water bodies can help in coping with it.
The author is former Director-General, National Mission for Clean Ganga, and Distinguished Fellow, The Infravision Foundation.