The draft National Water Policy 2012 recommended that water other than that required for drinking and sanitation, be treated as an economic good. Subsequent revisions have ensured that the water requirements for food security and agriculture are also considered primary
An incident that occurred in 1995 remains fresh in my mind after all these years. A friend and I were shopping in a busy area in Coimbatore when a posh car stopped near us. A pair of hands emerged from the window of the vehicle; the hands were washed using a 1-litre bottle of mineral water freshly bought from a shop.
The rich can afford mineral water to wash their hands! But what if the poor were made to pay for the water they use?
The draft National Water Policy has gone into two revisions, first in May 2012 and then again in July, after being tabled in January when protests were made about the policy treating water as an economic good, and favouring privatisation. Still, the soul of the draft remains intact except for a few points.
There is every likelihood that water will become a highly rationed commodity in the future. We will have to pay for any excess water we use after our basic domestic, sanitation and agriculture requirements have been met. This makes a national-level legal framework to control water use and prevent inter-state, intra-state and regional water conflicts absolutely imperative.
With a population of over 1.3 billion (17% of the world’s population), India has only around 4% of the world’s renewable water resources. Its geographical area is 329 Mha, of which 180.6 Mha is arable; a total area of 142 Mha is the net sown area, of which 57 Mha is irrigated. India has the largest irrigated area in the world. The country’s total drainage area is divided into 24 basins, of which 13 major basins have a drainage area more than 20,000 sq km. According to present estimates, India receives an average annual precipitation of about 4,000 billion cubic metres (bcm), which is its basic water resource. Of this, after considering natural evaporation/transpiration, only about 1,869 bcm is the average annual natural flow through rivers and aquifers. Of this, only about 1,123 bcm is utilisable through present strategies, if we don’t consider large inter-basin transfers.
Though availability of water is limited, demand continues to grow rapidly on account of rising population, rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and economic development. All across the country, rivers are running dry and suffer pollution by solid waste and effluents. Groundwater reserves are being overexploited, sanitation needs are not being met, and water conflicts are on the rise. Add to this, lack of a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach to water management, improper decision-making by public agencies, altering characteristics of catchment areas due to land use and land cover changes, salinisation, and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change. All these factors warrant strict water regulation. Indeed, spreading awareness about water issues and the need to use water judiciously is vital.
Water demand for various sectors in 1998 and 2025 in India (billion cubic metres)
Source: Report of the NCIWRDP (1999)
What the draft National Water Policy 2012 says
- Planning, development and management of water resources need to be governed from a common integrated perspective taking into consideration the local, regional, state and national context and keeping in mind human, environmental, social and economic needs.
- Water needs to be managed as a common pool community resource through a national-level legal framework, under the public trust doctrine, to achieve food security, livelihood and equitable and sustainable development for all. Existing water Acts may have to be modified accordingly.
- Water is essential for sustenance of the ecosystem, therefore minimum ecological needs should be given due consideration.
- River basins are to be considered the basic unit for all hydrological planning. Inter-basin transfers of water to be considered on the basis of the merits of each case after evaluating the environmental, economic and social impacts of such transfers.
- Promotion of climate change adaptation strategies like increasing water storage, better water use efficiency, proper demand management, incorporation of coping strategies for possible climate change effects during the formulation of mega water projects, and enhancing the capabilities of communities to adopt climate-resilient technological options.
- Enhancing the water available for use through status assessment of water resources every five years, direct use of rainfall, and avoidance of inadvertent evapo-transpiration, mapping of aquifers to know the quantum and quality of groundwater, arresting exploitation of groundwater, and considering the river basin as the basic hydrological unit of all planning.
- Integrated watershed development activities with the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to the extent possible to reduce sedimentation yield and increase water productivity.
- Water footprints and water auditing should be developed to promote and incentivise efficient use of water.
- Recycle and reuse of water, including return flows, should be the general norm, and incentives for the same to encourage the practice.
- Water saving in irrigation use is of paramount importance. Heavy underpricing of electricity which results in wastage of water and electricity to be regulated.
- The draft says: ‘For the pre-emptive and high priority uses of water for sustaining life and ecosystem for ensuring food security and supporting livelihood for the poor, the principle of differential pricing may have to be retained. Over and above these uses, water should increasingly be subjected to allocation and pricing on economic principles.’
- A Water Regulatory Authority (WRA) should be established in each state to fix and regulate the water tariff system and charges (on a volumetric basis). Water users associations (WUAs) should be given statutory powers to collect and retain a portion of water charges, manage the volumetric quantum of water allotted to them, and maintain the distribution system in their jurisdiction.
- Conservation of river corridors, waterbodies and infrastructure by preventing encroachment and diversification of waterbodies and restoring them to the extent feasible, avoiding urban settlements in upstream areas and controlling pollution of waterbodies through stringent punitive action.
- Efficiency benchmarks to be prescribed in planning and implementation, done from an ecological, social and climate change perspective. They should be time-bound to avoid economic losses. Local governing bodies like panchayats, municipalities, corporations, etc, and water users associations, wherever applicable, should be involved in planning projects.
- Proactive measures like flood forecasting, coping mechanisms and relevant measures to prevent floods and drought are to be planned.
- Removal of disparities in water supply to urban and rural areas, tapping surface water for urban domestic water use and integrating water supply and sewage treatment schemes will be given priority.
- A permanent Water Disputes Tribunal at the Centre should be established to resolve disputes expeditiously and in an equitable manner. Apart from using the ‘good offices’ of Union or state governments, as the case may be, the paths of arbitration and mediation may also be tried in dispute resolution.
- Water resources projects and services should be managed with community participation. Wherever state governments or local governing bodies decide, the private sector can be encouraged to become a service-provider in a public-private partnership model to meet agreed terms of service delivery, including penalties for failure.
- The draft facilitates international agreements with neighbouring countries on a bilateral basis for the exchange of hydrological data on international rivers on a near-real-time basis.
- All hydrological data, other than those classified on national security considerations, should be put in the public domain. A National Water Informatics Centre should be established to collect, collate and process hydrological data regularly from all over the country, conduct preliminary processing, and maintain data in an open and transparent manner on a GIS platform.
Merits and demerits of the policy
- The policy deserves praise for its ecological, climate change and conservation perspective.
- Adaptation to climate change and the statement that special attention will be paid to mitigation at the micro level by enhancing the capabilities of communities to adopt climate-resilient technological options is welcome.
- Revision of the statement “water, over and above the pre-emptive need for safe drinking water and sanitation, should be treated as an economic good so as to promote its conservation and efficient use,” in the initial draft, to “water, after meeting the pre-emptive needs for safe drinking water, sanitation and high priority allocation for other domestic needs (including the needs of animals), achieving food security, supporting sustenance agriculture and minimum ecosystem needs, may be treated as an economic good so as to promote its conservation and efficient use,” can be welcomed from the perspective that agriculture has been given importance.
- The statement that “inter-basin transfers of water should be considered on the basis of the merits of each case after evaluating the environmental, economic and social impacts of such transfers,” appears to understand the difficulty in interlinking rivers and its possible negative impacts.
- Growing water conflicts warrant a permanent Water Disputes Tribunal, which is taken care of in the draft.
- Underpricing of electricity is undoubtedly a reason for wastage of both water and electricity. The importance given in the draft to regulating this is appreciated.
- The policy sees water as a community resource but also treats it as an economic good, which is contradictory. Approaching water as an income-generating resource by government must be executed very carefully. The policy allows for the public-private partnership model and also asks states to exit their “service-provider role” and play a role as regulator. This could lead to distortions in access to water and prices in the long run. As with other policies, the poor will be at the receiving end.
- Doing away with priorities mentioned in the earlier drafts (the 1987 and 1992 drafts list the priorities as drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, etc) will bring about confusion in the decision-making process and facilitate the role of parties with vested interests (for example, providing flexibility towards allocating water for industrial use at the cost of agriculture).
- Water policies have existed on paper since 1987, but nothing much has been done on the ground to ensure judicious use of water, to prevent encroachment of waterbodies, and growing exploitation of groundwater resources. For example, according to Clause 3.3 of the 2002 policy, water resources development and management have to be planned for a hydrological unit such as a drainage basin as a whole or for a sub-basin, multi-sectorally, taking into account surface and groundwater. “This has not translated to even one example of planning for a basin or even one instance of planning for surface and groundwater together,” says Chetan Pandit, former Member (Policy and Planning) of the Central Water Commission.
- Providing incentives for recycle and reuse of water favours industry. Instead of incentives, strict enforcement of punitive laws to punish those industries that waste water and pollute it should be undertaken.
- The draft policy also wants to take away proprietary rights over water, which means no one can claim ownership of groundwater on private land. Though this seems like a good move, it may affect use of water for agriculture unless the point is further clarified.
- Intra-state and inter-state water conflicts continue to occur. Existing tribunals, such as the Cauvery Water Tribunal, have not been able to find solutions to them. Water issues are very sensitive issues; unless there is proper understanding among people within states and between states, these conflicts will persist.
(S Ramesh is team leader, DHAN Foundation)
Draft National Water Policy (2012) as recommended by the National Water Board in its 14th meeting held on June 7, 2012, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India
‘Water Policy Issues of India: Study Outcomes and Suggested Policy Interventions’. International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), New Delhi, August 2005
‘National Water Policy 2012 Silent on Priorities’. Bharat Lal Seth. Down to Earth, February 10, 2012
‘Revised Draft National Water Policy Restores Priority to Agriculture’. Bharat Lal Seth, Down to Earth, July 18, 2012
‘Not The Farmers, Not The Environment: Draft National Policy 2012 Seems to Help Only Vested Interests’. Press release by SANDRP. http://www.indiawaterportal.org/post/23168
‘Let Water, Not Profits, Flow’. The Hindu, Editorial, February 4, 2012
Infochange News & Features, September 2012