The Tragedy of Water Commons

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Kiran Avadhanula and Archana Jayaraman, KfW New Delhi Office

In the article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968), Garrett Hardin talks about how herdsmen use a common pasture for grazing their herd and to maximize the gain, a herdsman adds one animal at a time to his herd assuming it will not affect the availability of pasture for grazing for his herd. He adds an animal in his herd without limit, in a world that is limited. This is the tragedy of the commons and this is exceptionally relevant in the context of water management in today’s urban India, writes Kiran Avadhanula and Archana Jayaraman, KfW New Delhi Office.

When it comes to water, the situation is no different. With only three per cent of the water on earth being available as freshwater, India holds just four per cent of the total freshwater resources while accounting for over 17.5 per cent of the population. The impacts of climate change, including variability in rainfall, increased instances of flooding and droughts and population explosion has meant that these resources are further depleting and the per-capita availability is decreasing.

The available resources are being mismanaged leading to pollution, encroachments, increased construction and development activities in the catchment areas, etc. thus further exacerbating the problem. While the efforts of the Government are showing results in some areas (for instance under the Namami Gange programme), the apathy of citizens and lack of enforcement of the regulations/laws is threatening water resources. The unchecked exploitation of groundwater and lack of regulation on this matter has further worsened the challenges. The new challenge facing the world and India with its vast marine ecology is the issue of marine litter wherein increased human activities on beaches, seas and oceans is leading to a quantum jump of waste in these water bodies. Pollutants from rivers and other sources are also ending up in the seas, further increasing the problem. Thus, we are akin to a tragedy of water commons, wherein everyone is thinking that their freedom of commons and consumption or utilisation may not impact the society at large, thus bringing in the tragedy.

However, in India, one needs to look at the overall consumption/allocations of water resources. It can broadly be seen that around 85 per cent of the water is allocated for agricultural purposes and the rest for industries and for drinking and domestic uses, in almost equal proportions. Each of these uses has inherent inefficiencies built-in. For instance, agriculture uses flooding as a key method of irrigation instead of appropriate irrigation methods. Many times, industries and service sectors that may not need potable quality water are supplied with the same. Further, unregulated groundwater exploitation, when there is no supply by the institutional system, adversely impact the  surrounding areas, thus leading to opposition to having industrial units in water-scarce regions. Water supply in urban areas is marred with high NRW (non-revenue water), inequity and wastage, owing to infrastructural deficiencies, misguided subsidies and low tariffs.


In recent years there has been significant attention towards wastewater. While still less than 30 per cent of the total sewage generated in urban areas is being scientifically treated, instead of looking at sewerage networks and STPs as the only solution, the promotion of liquid waste management through faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) and decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DeWats), has brought the much-required change in addressing the challenge. However, this is easier said than done. While advisories and other information are being provided to both urban and rural local bodies, the value chains required to take them forward not only need to be established but also mainstreamed. The states need to come up with comprehensive policies and acts that will enable them to take forward liquid waste management systematically. There is a complete lack of pricing of wastewater services and hence, funding of much-needed infrastructure is lacking. Let alone capex, the city governments and utilities are unable to even garner operations and management (O&M) expenses, thus leading to assets not being managed properly. While wastewater reuse and recycle are being promoted, social and psychological factors play a significant role in the acceptance of recycled water in non- potable uses.

Also Read: Namami Gange TRANSFORMING the Urban Riverscape

The obsession of the cities and governments on new asset creation and disregard to fix the existing infrastructure and maintain them properly is a challenge that persists. In these instances, the judicial systems and more importantly the National Green Tribunal (NGT) taking suo moto cognizance of the issues and directing the cities and governments to take actions that they were supposed to take, either way, brings to the fore the state of affairs in the water and wastewater sectors.


The future we want: The heads of states met at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012 and reiterated their commitment to sustainable development adopted “the future we want” document with a vision to ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015) and CEO Water Mandates for the private sector (2020), Green Climate Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies focus on sustainable water management has brought the much-required impetus to the sector. UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network report (2020) ranks India’s SDG performance at 117 out of 193 countries participating, but it is heartening to note that it is on track to meet the SDG 6 targets on ensuring water availability and sustainable water and sanitation management. This has been supported by the various path-breaking water-related initiatives rolled out by the central and state governments alike. Going forward, a more robust achievement of the SDG targets can be met by streamlining the different initiatives, whilst achieving India’s own policy imperatives.


India is at a point of inflection there is a need for a paradigm shift to break free from the past and look at the future we want in a systematic manner. In this regard, some suggestions/ recommendations that governments as well as other stakeholders may take into consideration are as follows:


Moving towards a circular economy of water: There is a need to apply principles of circular economy to water management at large. This will not only bring more value for the water as a resource but also act as a revenue- generating avenue for the cities and utilities. The closed-loop approach towards water management will bring in the optimisation of resources, right kind of incentives and lead to conservation of the scarce resource. Elements such as water use efficiency, reuse and recycle of water, demand management including addressing NRW, etc. will need to be integrated into the systems thinking. Pricing it right: India has successful examples of energy/power regulators that has helped the sector reform and perform. Taking a cue from this, time is opportune for having a central water regulatory commission and state regulators that can help in efficient tariff setting mechanisms and addressing the many other challenges in the sector. Some states already have this mechanism in place however there are some challenges in their construct. A model bill for State Water Regulatory Authority Act was outlined but never taken forward. The Government may need to take forward the setting up of regulators with utmost urgency. This would also support providing equitable access to safe water to all sections of users.

Also Read: Addressing Water Woes: The Mauritian Way


Water allocations based on a scientific methodology: In India, conflicting interests between different sectors and of different states hamper uniform allocation policies. Time is opportune that such conflicts are minimized by having a scientific approach to the allocation of water resources. However, as water is a state subject as per the Constitution of India, allocation polices can’t be uniform and the long-standing inter-state water disputes are a testimony to this. Hence, one solution to look at this is to possibly bring water on the concurrent list of the constitution. This will pave way for later sectoral reforms and a unified approach across the country.

Further enhancing the role of the Ministry of Jal Shakti: the Ministry of Jal Shakti constituted in 2019 proposed to have a larger integrated approach towards management of water. It has two key departments: the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and the Department of Drinking water and Sanitation. It is pertinent to note that these two departments, while a definite improvement of their previous avatars (Ministry Water Resources and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation), the role of the Ministry will need to encapsulate all the river basins and water bodies and also bring in urban water supply under its realm. This would mean that the allocations of water, as outlined above, can also be rationalized to a large extent.

Unless we decisively act today and deal with water in a sustainable manner, the future we want may just be a pipe dream!

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the KfW.

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