The Global Water System Project, which was launched in 2003 as a joint initiative of the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) and Global Environmental Change (GEC) programme, epitomises global concern about the human-induced transformation of fresh water and its impact on the earth system and society. The fact is that freshwater resources are under stress, the principal driver being human activities in their various forms.
Fresh water, water valuation
In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the link between societal vulnerability and modifications of water systems. It is globally estimated that the gap between demand for and supply of fresh water may reach up to 40% by 2030 if present practices continue.
The formation of the 2030 Water Resource Group in 2008, at the instance of the World Economic Forum, and the World Bank’s promotion of the group’s activity since 2018, is in recognition of this problem and to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water availability and sanitation for all by 2030 (SDG 6). Formally, it is: “to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all, focusing on the sustainable management of water resources, wastewater and ecosystems....” The latest UN World Water Development Report, 2021, titled ‘Valuing Water’, has laid stress on the proper valuation of water by considering five interrelated perspectives: water sources; water infrastructure; water services; water as an input to production and socio-economic development, and sociocultural values of water.
Designing a comprehensive mix of divergent views about water (along with ecological and environmental issues) held by stakeholder groups is necessary. In this context, a hydro-social cycle approach provides an appropriate framework. It repositions the natural hydrological cycle in a human-nature interactive structure and considers water and society as part of a historical and relational-dialectical process.
Inter-basin transfer projects
The anthropogenic factors directly influencing a freshwater system are the engineering of river channels, irrigation and other consumptive use of water, widespread land use/land cover change, change in an aquatic habitat, and point and non-point source pollution affecting water quality. The intra- and inter-basin transfer (IBT) of water is a major hydrological intervention to rectify the imbalance in water availability due to naturally prevailing unequal distribution of water resources within a given territory.
There are several IBT initiatives across the world. One recent document indicates that there are 110 water transfer mega projects that have either been executed (34 projects) or being planned/under construction (76 projects) across the world. The National River Linking Project of India is one of those under construction. These projects, if executed, will create artificial water courses that are more than twice the length of the earth’s equator and will transfer 1,910 km3 of water annually. They will reengineer the hydrological system with considerable local, regional and global ramifications. Based on a multi-country case study analysis, the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature (2009) has suggested a cautious approach and the necessity to adhere to sustainability principles set out by the World Commission on Dams while taking up IBT projects.
Some of the key assumptions
Recently, inter-basin transfer of water drew attention in India due to a provision made in Budget 2022 for the Ken Betwa river link project which is a part of the National River Linking project (mooted in 1970 and revived in 1999). This decision raises larger questions about hydrological assumptions and the use and the management of freshwater resources in the country. We shall ponder over some of them.
First, the basic premise of IBT is to export water from the surplus basin to a deficit basin. However, there is contestation on the concept of the surplus and deficit basin itself as the exercise is substantially hydrological. Water demand within the donor basin by factoring present and future land use, especially cropping patterns, population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, socio-economic development and environmental flow are hardly worked out. Besides this, rainfall in many surplus basins has been reported as declining. The status of the surplus basin may alter if these issues are considered.
Second, there is concern about the present capacity utilisation of water resources created in the country. By 2016, India created an irrigation potential for 112 million hectares, but the gross irrigated area was 93 million hectares. There is a 19% gap, which is more in the case of canal irrigation. In 1950-51, canal irrigation used to contribute 40% of net irrigated area, but by 2014-15, the net irrigated area under canal irrigation came down to less than 24%. Ground water irrigation now covers 62.8% of net irrigated area. The average water use efficiency of irrigation projects in India is only 38% against 50%-60% in the case of developed countries.
Agriculture, grey water use
Even at the crop level we consume more water than the global average. Rice and wheat, the two principal crops accounting for more than 75% of agricultural production use 2,850 m3/tonnes and 1,654 m3/tonnes of water, respectively, against the global average of 2,291m3/tonnes and 1,334m3/ tonnes in the same order. The agriculture sector uses a little over 90% of total water use in India. And in industrial plants, consumption is 2 times to 3.5 times higher per unit of production of similar plants in other countries. Similarly, the domestic sector experiences a 30% to 40% loss of water due to leakage.
Third, grey water is hardly used in our country. It is estimated that 55% to 75% of domestic water use turns into grey water depending on its nature of use, people’s habits, climatic conditions, etc. At present, average water consumption in the domestic sector in urban areas is 135 litres to 196 litres a head a day. Given the size of India’s urban population (469 million estimated for 2021), the amount of grey water production can be well imagined. If grey water production in the rural areas is considered it will be a huge amount. The discharge of untreated grey water and industrial effluents into freshwater bodies is cause for concern. The situation will be further complicated if groundwater is affected.
Apart from the inefficient use of water in all sectors, there is also a reduction in natural storage capacity and deterioration in catchment efficiency. The issues are source sustainability, renovation and maintenance of traditional water harvesting structures, grey water management infrastructure, groundwater recharge, increasing water use efficiency, and reuse of water.
Looking into these issues may not be adequate to address all the problems. Nevertheless, these measures will help to reduce demand supply gap in many places, and the remaining areas of scarcity can be catered to using small-scale projects. The axiom that today’s water system is co-evolving and the challenges are mainly management and governance has been globally well accepted. Water projects are politically charged and manifest an interplay of social relations, social power, and technology.
It is important to include less predictable variables, revise binary ways of thinking of ‘either or’, and involve non-state actors in decision-making processes. A hybrid water management system is necessary, where (along with professionals and policy makers) the individual, a community and society have definite roles in the value chain. The challenge is not to be techno-centric but anthropogenic.
Srikumar Chattopadhyay is ICSSR National Fellow, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, and former Scientist, National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram