Water management needs a hydro-social approach

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Water management needs a hydro-social approach

  • 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.

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 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,
  • Sociocultural values of water.

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 nonpoint 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.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Planning ahead

  • 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.
  • 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.