Community led solutions could be one of the many ways to stem the current water crisis

John F. Kennedy once said, “Anyone who can solve the problem of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes – one for peace and one for science.” While they may not be aspiring for this prize, the country has several activist-scholars whose combination of grassroots work with academic research has increased their ability to offer cost-effective solutions for water-related problems and crisis situations.

One such scholar-activist is Himanshu Thakkar, engineer and environmentalist. He was earlier with the Narmada Bachao Andolan before he initiated (with other colleagues) the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). The network's voice is heard with increasing respect on water-related issues as it takes a lot of care to suggest only those solutions which minimise all costs (economic, social and environmental), emphasise sustainability and promote community led regulation.

SANDRP's latest effort is a study titled 'Water Sector Options for India in a Changing Climate' which includes case studies done by experienced researchers. As any planning for water now will have to take into account the new problems and stresses arising due to climate change, the study is relevant today.

According to the study recent data reveals that the rainfall pattern in India is changing significantly and a major reason for this changing pattern is climate change. The frequency and magnitude of high rainfall events is increasing while the number of rainy days is decreasing. This raises the possibility of increased frequency and intensity of floods. The onset of monsoon and the gap between rainfall events is becoming irregular.

These changes are likely to have a massive impact on all farmers, particularly rain-fed farmers. Adaptation will be helped if we make rainwater harvesting and groundwater change the top priority in our water resources policy and programmes.

Groundwater is India's lifeline and to protect it a three-point strategy is advocated. Firstly, ensure the sustenance of existing groundwater recharge systems including local water systems and their catchments. Secondly, give top priority to the creation of more such systems. Thirdly, put in place a credible, legally enforceable, community led regulation. At the same time, the government should promote greater access of groundwater to the underprivileged, particularly the Dalit communities.

The study also advocates organic farming as increased organic matter in the soil will also increase water security for rain-fed farmers by enhancing the moisture holding capacity of the soil. Water-saving, high-yielding and low-input requiring practices like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) should be promoted. Water intensive crops and GM crops should be discouraged.

A Right to Water Act should be enacted keeping in view ecological protection, human rights protection and livelihood protection. The human rights perspective is that clean water should be ensured for drinking and domestic use as a right to all people without any discrimination. An ecological perspective emphasises the protection of rivers, lakes, wet lands and all water bodies. A livelihood perspective demands that water should be available to support livelihoods. Existing water laws should also be re-examined from these perspective, the study says.

There is a clear need to evaluate carefully the actual usefulness of huge dams and canal networks that have been built as the available data raises disturbing questions. Future emphasis should be on ensuring better utilisation of existing infrastructure instead of rushing into new gigantic projects of dubious merit and high costs. To ensure proper functioning of reservoirs, each reservoir should have an operation committee in which at least 50 per cent members should be from the local communities. Freshwater flow all around the year should be ensured in all rivers at levels which are adequate for social and ecological needs including groundwater charge.

Overall, the merit of the study is that while highlighting the new problems likely to be aggravated in the already stressful situation of water crisis, it carefully avoids a panic response and lists a wide range of highly desirable solutions which can help to solve the water crisis without causing any social and ecological disruption.

The logo of SANDRP is a plant with three leaves which represent three principles of sustainable water solutions - 'harvest rain', 'let rivers flow' and 'no destructive projects'. The study seeks solutions based on these three principles.