India should re-think its per capita water availability index to correct social and economic disparities in water usage, says a new UN report

India needs to formulate new indices to measure available water resources as the calculations per capita water availability do not include disparity in water allocation and access. This disparity is identified as a major determining factor for water access and use.

“The validity of the per capita water availability index needs to be re-thought in the light of social and economic disparities in water usage that exist. On the same grounds, putting forward the argument that increase in population leads to water scarcity needs rigorous debate,” a report ‘Water in India: Situation and Prospects’ brought out by UNICEF and Food and Agriculture Organisation has said.

Pointing out that a farmer’s need of water for basic livelihood support often gets mingled with wasteful water uses of high-end consumers, the report — a first of its kind by UNICEF — suggests developing new indices which are able to capture the underlying differences in water access.

India has about 16 per cent of the world’s population as compared to only 4 per cent of its water resources. With the present population of over 1,000 million, the per capita water availability is around 1.170 cu m/person/year. Severe water shortages have led to a growing number of conflicts between users in the agricultural and industrial sectors, as also the domestic sector. The lack of water availability and poor management practices have also manifested in poor sanitation facilities, one among the biggest environmental and social challenges India faces today.

Lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation can be related to economic, political and social power imbalances, and discrimination against certain groups or communities.

The report further says it is imperative to initiate efforts for designing an appropriate industrial water use by this sector. Multiple uses of water and the traditional allocation priorities and quantities also need to be revisited. “The concept of scarcity and surpluses of water must look beyond State boundaries, as with a more disaggregated assessment, these comparisons will surely change.”

It points out that myopic approaches in attaining food security are risking agricultural sustainability by encouraging increased use of water. The water demand from agriculture is set to increase tremendously and will have to be met to ensure food security in a high consumption scenario. The concept of inter-State virtual water transfer also needs emphasis, according to the report, as the States with lower availability resources end up being the net exporters of virtual water to water surplus States. With the current rate of industrial expansion in the country, the water demand from this sector will also escalate in future.

On inter-relation between gender and water in India, the report says any analysis would be incomplete without taking this into consideration. In India, gender intersects with class and caste and produces layered social hierarchies that impinge on one’s access to, and control over, this precious resource. Gender and water issues remain at the level of rhetoric for the want of a broad based and shared understanding, without any support from the ground data on changing gender and social relations.

The issue of gender disaggregated data needs to be taken up as priority by the state for any progress to be made in mainstreaming gender in water resources management. Another major issue is about how to tackle gender mainstreaming at the organisational level. The bureaucratic set up that manages water also suffers from serious inadequacies with respect to gender mainstreaming. “Without addressing these issues, well-meaning gender inclusion efforts will not lead to logical and intended outcomes.”

Importantly, the report points out that water quality issues in India have reached an alarming proportion. Augmenting water supply to achieve millennium development goals (MDGs) will not suffice until its quality is ensured. There is no model in India that shows best ways to tackle the waste water generated through the industrial and domestic sectors. The economic implications of poor sanitation in urban India and its impact on water quality are profound. The agencies responsible for checking industrial pollution have failed, the report says while adding that pollution contributes to water scarcity by polluting freshwater resources.

The report attempts to provide a comprehensive analysis of the state of water resource development and management in India, based on secondary information. It maps the current challenges and suggests feasible alternatives amidst increasing water scarcity and disenfranchisement of resource bases for the poor and the marginalised. The issues consolidated using secondary data are backed by consultations with major stakeholders.

The focus is to evolve an environment where water is available for all in a sustainable manner – safe drinking water for basic needs, adequate water for agriculture, water for industry and for the ecosystem. Thus, it encompasses both a depiction of the state of freshwater resources and potential problems and progress towards identified goals, including workable solutions.

“The report becomes more important as the 12th Five-Year Plan will be implemented shortly,” Satya Priya, National Programme Coordinator (Land and Water), FAO-India, said.

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