Interview

India is water stressed, not water scarce: Dr B.R.K. Pillai

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Dr B.R.K. Pillai

The Indian subcontinent has recently faced one of the major water crises and the situation has not been improved much. In 2019, a quarter of the country was drought-hit and almost 50 percent was struggling with drought-like conditions. As per Composite Water Management Index, a report released by NITI Aayog in 2018, major Indian metropolises like Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru are heading towards “zero-day” in terms of groundwater levels. To know in-depth about the gravity of the situation Nisha Samant from Elets News Network interviewed Dr B.R.K. Pillai, Commissioner, (Command Area Development and Water Management), Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India.

Water scarcity has been a major challenge for both the urban as well as rural population. What are some of the pertinent factors associated with the issue which everyone must know about?

First of all I do not agree with the perception that India is suffering from water scarcity. India is facing water stress, not scarcity. There is a need for us to understand the issue more clearly. Water scarcity gives an impression that the total water availability has declined and today we have less water being made available by the nature, which is insufficient to meet our needs. But, this notion is not supported by statistical facts. Every year India gets enough water by way of precipitation – estimated to be around 4000 billion cubic meters (BCM) against present requirement of about 700 to 800 BCM – and there are no facts which indicate that this situation has altered or likely to alter in the near future. On the other hand, water stress can be encountered in a situation where even with sufficient quantum of naturally available water people are unable to use it as reliable resources – optimally and sustainably – to meet their annual water demands. And so is the case with present India, which is water-stressed and not water scarce.

As per you, there is no water scarcity but water stress. Can you elaborate on it?

Water scarcity would be an act of God, but water stress is mostly manmade. The water stress that we are facing is because of the increasing population and also because of our inability to develop and manage water resources for raising supplies at the same pace at which population driven demands are growing. The major challenge thus relates with our capacity to develop and manage water resources in a manner that brings balance between demands and supplies. This balance can be brought about by decreasing demands or by increasing supplies or by seeking both interventions. Of course, the balancing of demand and supply is needed at the micro level – i.e. in different geographical location and at different points of time – which is not easy because of the acute spatial and temporal variation in India’s rainfall pattern.  

For better understanding, we need to closely look at India’s present as well as emerging demand and supply trend. We will realize that the continuously deteriorating condition is not merely a case of persistently increasing demand with nearly stagnated supplies, but a much more complicated case of increasing demand with simultaneously declining supplies. India’s growing population is bringing immense pressure on limited land resources impacting both surface and ground water sources. Large scale encroachment of lakes, ponds and other water bodies has dented the surface-water supply capacity of sizable numbers of small population clusters. Large scale deforestations along with other alterations in the catchment characteristics have brought significant changes in the hydrological regimes of both small and large rivers. Diminishing water bodies together with wide-spread impact of other human actions – such as loss of vegetation, paving of ground surfaces, leveling of ground slopes, infringing of flood plains, construction of multiple basement structures, etc – have also dented the ground-water supply capacity of the entire nation. 

The problem of water stress that we face today is essentially because of the stated omissions and commissions of past as well as of present times. It would be meaningless to link this problem with the notion of natural scarcity because then we will be accepting the present condition as fait accompli. Countries like Israel and Singapore face much harsher condition than any part of our country in terms of total water availability or even per-capita water availability. But these nations, and also several other nations, have overcome such problems through better management of their limited water and land resources.

What can be efficient water management mechanisms that need to be followed for overcoming present day challenges, and at what levels?

In terms of the broad water-resource management context, I think there are two types of challenges. The first challenge is about managing the deficit, i.e. dealing with a condition where water demand is much more than the supply. Second one is the challenge of surplus management, where supply is in far excess of our capacity to handle it. These twin challenges – which in extreme cases are referred as droughts and floods – have space and time linkages, and hence their solutions are to be strived at micro levels. But we mostly tend to assimilate the issue at the macro level – of a State or the Nation – and often draw erroneous conclusions. At macro level we may even find that total demand is matching the total supply, but at micro levels the story would be entirely different. Also, the challenge of surplus management is in no way of lesser concern in terms of social, economic or environmental consequences. In fact, under the emerging scenarios of climate change, possibly the issues of flood may acquire very serious proportions in near future. However generally the challenge of deficit management seems to draw more attention, hence we will talk more about it. 

The deficit management can be handled in two viable ways, one is known as supply-side management and the other is demand-side management. For ease of understanding, let us take the simple case of a village that faces issues of deficit management. We can find a solution by either decreasing the total irrigation demand of the village – say by switching over to less water intensive crops – or by somehow increasing its irrigation supplies. Prima facie the demand-side solution, in comparison with supply-side solution, could be easily implemented at lower and simpler levels. The total water demand of village can be reduced by interventions that are exclusively from within the village, and even isolated efforts of individual farmers will have cumulative effect in improving the total village demand. In comparison, the supply-side solutions may not be that simple. The village that has exhausted its own supply potential will have to seek enhancement of its share from external sources. This, even by discounting high costs entailed in additional infrastructure, may not be easy under the prevailing heightened conditions of regional and sectoral completions for water. Of course improvement in the supply potential of existing village sources – involving better operation and maintenance of irrigation tanks, canals, groundwater harvesting structures, etc – can also be sought, but it will have varied impacts depending upon the quality of community participation. Any isolated effort for increasing individual supplies – say by way of deepening of bore well or excess drawl from canal – will only lead to an adverse impact on cumulative supply of the village. 

The stated example points out that demand-side solution can be effectively implemented at smaller or even individual levels. Thus every individual farmer who has switched to micro irrigation practices – be it drip or sprinkler – is contributing for improving the overall rural water demand. Same is the case with urban water demand as even small savings in individual household demands will significantly improve the municipal demand. On the other hand, even minor improvements in supply management – involving tanks, check-dams, water courses, groundwater harvesting, groundwater budgeting etc – will require community participation at the level of water user associations or gram panchayats. Obviously management of large supply-side projects will require synergy of efforts at a much higher level, involving the State or even multiple States.       

You are conveying that demand-side management is easier than supply-side management. But then why there is no visible impact in terms of demand improvement? 

What I mentioned was the relative ease of demand-side management in comparison to supply-side management in present conditions. Say if we were to curtail irrigation demand in a village by 20%, it will have the same effect as augmenting irrigation supplies by 20%. And, curtailing of demand will look easier because augmenting of supplies by same quantum would be very difficult today. But it does not mean that demand management will happen on its own without making a planned and sincere effort. There are three challenges – namely, high costs of technology, institutional level reforms, and changing of social behavior – that need to be addressed on priority. Ample new technologies – say, for improved agriculture with less water, recycling of industrial water, reducing and reusing of domestic water, etc – are available today, but their high costs prohibit the desired scale of conversions. Also note that even with affordable technologies, the demand for water will not get curtailed unless user realizes the value of wasted water. So there is an urgent need for bringing institutional reforms whereby water can be reasonably priced on volumetric consumption basis – especially in irrigation sector that has over 80% share in the total water demand. Finally, the present social behavior towards crop choices, irrigation practices, polluting of water and water sources, reuse of waste water etc needs to be altered through education and effective communication. 

Do you think that constitutional changes will be needed to empower the Central Government for bringing nation-wide water reforms? 

If our emphasis remains on the supply-side management, then perhaps we may need to relook – at least in terms of interpretation – the constitutional arrangement for subject matter of water. But for prioritizing demand-side management, or even for the implementation of small scale supply-side solutions, the present constitutional arrangement may suffice. Though I feel that these easier options need to be exhausted first, but eventually – for meeting demand of India’s peak stabilized population – we may still need more numbers of large-scale supply projects. This will call for optimum planning, construction, and operations of interstate river valley projects – requiring cooperation of multiple State Governments, or the direct intervention of an empowered Central Government.  

The investments in the water resources sector have been declining over the past many years. Do you agree that days of large river valley projects are over?

As I just said, we may still be required to develop more numbers of large river valley projects after exhausting full potential of demand-side improvement and small-scale supply projects. So it would be wrong to say that days of large river valley projects are over. In fact there is an utmost urgency for completing many of the long-pending projects where huge amount of money stands invested. Moreover, the river valley projects that are in operation may yet need substantial investment for completing command area development works, repair and maintenance of age-old dams and canals, modernization of canals with lining or replacement with pipelines, restoration of reservoir capacities that are lost because of siltation and creation of extra capacities wherever permissible. And, also recall what I said about possible compounding of flood issues with the emerging climate-change effects. Some more new dam-reservoirs, as part of viable river interlinking projects, will have to be developed in near future for managing not only the water-deficits encountered during droughts, but also surplus-water in times of floods. I would also like to say that time has come for us to move beyond ‘large-dam versus small-dam’ debate. These options can no longer be seen as polar opposites, as each one of them would be needed to overcome India’s present and the unfolding water crisis. 

The water resource is a multi-disciplinary subject matter. How well are we able to handle this in India? What will be your suggestions for further improvement? 

Water resource management is a complex multi-disciplinary subject. Most of us often view it from the technical – i.e. water engineering – perspective. Qualitative engineering is an essential requirement, but not the sufficient condition for effective management of water resources. For achieving an effective and sustainable outcome, water resource management also needs to be integrated with economic, social, and environmental perspectives. Another mistake is in treating water in compartments of sources – e.g. surface water and groundwater – without appreciating the fact that same rain water appears as surface or ground water and moves from one source to another many a times as part of river-basin hydrology. Similarly we mishandle water in compartments of uses without appreciating possibilities of its multiple uses – e.g. domestic waste water can be used for industrial purposes, or industrial waste water can be used for irrigation purposes etc. Last, but not the least serious omission, is about our failure to develop and manage ‘water resources’ and ‘land resources’ in an integrated manner with river basins or sub-basins forming the planning unit. These omissions are amply complex and not easy for me to explain in a short time.  Yet I am pointing out these so as to underline the fact that present water crisis calls for holistic handling of India’s water resources, which will require specialized knowledge, in-depth understanding of issues, and synergy of mitigation-efforts. Moreover, a course correction can happen only within a proper institutional framework, which will have to be created with matching structural reforms.

What is your most important message for our readers?

I would like to conclude with two important points. Firstly, the management of water essentially pertains to domain of ‘Strategic Management’ needing the country to become proactive rather than being reactive to every fresh crisis. In reactive mode we overcome one crisis, but also often end-up laying seeds of many new crises. With a proactive strategy, the planners and policy makers of the State and Central Governments will foresee the future, and prepare accordingly. 

Secondly, the water which is naturally available as annual resource is of stochastic nature. The word ‘stochastic’ (Greek for ‘able to guess’) underlines random variability – something which can be analyzed statistically but not predicted precisely. Hence, besides striving for the creation of a robust water infrastructure, we should also develop capacity for resilience against unavoidable droughts and floods.

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