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We need proper water governance

If we want to save our rivers and the environment, we must strengthen old institutions and create responsible river basin institutions soon

At the root of the challenges facing the water and sanitation sector is governance, and governance responds to the needs of society by creating empowered institutions to act on its behalf and deliver development.

In the urban water and sanitation sector sometime in the late 1950s, the State of Karnataka (then Mysore) realised that supplying water to Bengaluru was getting to be a challenging task requiring specialised engineering skills. Water was to be pumped from the Cauvery at a distance of about 95 km from the city and then it had to be lifted over 300 metres. The local body was seen not to be capacitated for this task and hence in 1964 was created the first water supply and sanitation utility for India, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). Similarly for all the other urban areas of the State the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board was created in 1973, perhaps the first State-level water supply management utility next only to the Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board created in 1971.

This institution building was necessary since the trust was on a single source of water, usually surface water, tapped from a river and diverted to a reservoir for it then to be treated and supplied to a fast growing urban area. These can be termed as 20th century institutions.

Different challenges

In the 21st century the challenges are different. An approach called Integrated Urban Water Management is gaining ground. Cities realise that they have to depend on multiple sources of water. Groundwater and its sustainable management is a huge challenge. Treating and recycling waste-water is becoming an imperative. Managing fast disappearing urban lakes is the current flavour of the decade.

Rainwater harvesting has become de rigueur and an important supplement to the city water needs. Finally reservoirs on rivers are drying up and therefore rivers have to be understood and managed so that they preserve their ecological integrity yet supply water for the requirements of agriculture, industries and drinking water.

The 20th century institutions will need to change and adapt to current requirements. For a start, hydro-geologists will need to be hired and help plan the laws around groundwater management so that the resource is used sustainably. Lake specialists will need to be appointed so that water bodies are not allowed to deteriorate. Sine waste-water flows in cities are in millions of litres per day, good design and implementation for their recycling will need to be put in place quickly. It is time that our water utilities changed themselves.

On the river management front, we have been remarkably lax. If one river dries up as a source we just move farther to another and imagine that this new source will go on forever. But cities have to understand that it is the activities in the basin which affect rivers the most. Over-use of groundwater, sand mining, agricultural practices that use water excessively and industries rampantly polluting rivers all need to be managed if people have to get water for life and livelihood.

In the absence of a river basin institution, it is impossible to bring an understanding of the water situation in a basin and to plan to synchronise action to save our rivers.

Tank management

When the tanks of Karnataka were in dire straits, a community-based tank management institution called the Jala Samvardhane Yojane Sangha (JSYS) was created. It served its purpose well and achieved some remarkable success before it was allowed to deteriorate. If we want to save our rivers, if we want water for life, livelihood, the environment and economic growth, we need to quickly move to capacitate our old institutions better and to create new long-term democratically accountable, responsible river basin institutions soon. This is how water governance will be delivered and this is how we will move towards water wisdom.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:27:03 PM |

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