ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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All Is Not Lost, But Water Sector Reforms Must Go Ahead

There is a growing awareness that water endowments in India are severely under the threat of exhaustion and degradation. The focus since independence has been on intensifying utilisation of water through building more and more dams on rivers or extracting groundwater through wells and tube wells. India has constructed more than 4,400 major and medium-size dams and extracts about 251 billion cubic metres of groundwater annually. Yet, scant attention has been paid to maintaining the health of rivers, their catchments, and aquifer systems. As a result, while large sums have been spent on constructing infrastructure, the benefits to farmers, for whom this has been done, have been so inadequate that the country is ravaged by droughts and floods year after year. Groundwater levels and quality have fallen alarmingly because what was originally a solution to the problem of water availability—tube-well drilling—has now become a reason aggravating the problem.

This situation clearly shows the need to bring an ecosystem perspective to our water management and governance. This perspective recognises that water is a finite substance in nature, capable of both degradation and overuse. Human interventions leading to over-extraction and pollution can have harmful effects on the quantity and quality of water available, thereby adversely affecting drinking water and livelihood security among a large number of people. This alternative framework sees water in its natural state as essentially in the common pool, to be shared equitably by all. Such a comprehensive and systemic view is needed to tackle recurring droughts, floods, and other water-related problems. Both the current mode of thinking and the institutional framework (laws and regulatory structures) need to be re-engineered to suit this new framework. In view of these and other fresh challenges faced by a rapidly urbanising and industrialising India in an era of climate change, a paradigm shift has to take place in our water management.

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