Probing India’s Water Sector

Lately, we have been trying to seize all possible opportunities to explore and develop the four challenge areas of the Design Public Conclave, to be held in November this year. In such a situation, how could we not make use of our weekly ‘Sabha’ that provides a platform to have a discussion and get opinions and suggestions from different perspectives. Therefore, at this sabha we had an engaging discussion on ‘Equitable Water’, which is one of the four large challenge areas of the Conclave.

The demand for water in India has mainly been in the three sectors: Domestic, Agricultural, and Industrial sector, with agricultural sector being the biggest consumer (90% of total water consumption) and the domestic sector being the smallest (4-6% of total water consumption). India’s growing population, expanding economy, and a large agricultural sector, are leading to a rapidly increasing demand and a subsequent dwindling supply of water. An estimated 1.1 billion people do not have access to improved drinking water facility and the situation is only getting worse. Currently 30% of the rural population lack access to drinking water, and of the 35 states in India, only 7 have full availability of drinking water for rural inhabitants (UNICEF Study).

Due to processes like migration and urbanization, the urban population has doubled over the past few years enjoying a much higher standard of living with various amenities of an urban life, like flush toilets, bathing showers and washing machines. People in cities, therefore, lead a much more water-intensive life as compared to those living in rural areas. As a result, groundwater is increasingly being pumped from lower and lower levels leading to its depletion. As per UNICEF and World Bank Reports by 2050 the level of groundwater will be below 100 cubic kilometres per annum mark and the demand will rise to 1200 cubic kilometres per annum. There will be constant competition over water, between urban dwellers, farmers and industrialists. In addition, the human, agricultural, and industrial waste that pollute India’s rivers, seep into the ground, thus contaminating the groundwater. New Delhi alone produces 3.6 million cubic meters of sewage every day, but due to poor management less than half is effectively treated. Consequently, many people in rural areas lack access to clean drinking water and become prone to various water borne diseases. Eighty percent of the diseases in our country are linked with contaminated water.

At the sabha we tried to explore where lies the problem, and what could be the possible solutions or initiatives to ensure the supply of water to one and all. We wanted to narrow our focus on the most crucial aspect in the water sector that demands urgent and immediate attention. It seemed that the most pressing problem is to ensure the supply of clean and safe drinking water. Drinking water is of utmost importance for the survival of a person and therefore needs to be addressed in the best possible way. Our country has taken several initiatives since independence like Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme, Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, Sector Reform Projects, etc., yet not been able to ensure safe drinking water supply. What is needed, perhaps, is a more efficient governance and a greater decentralization of water management. In the process of conducting expert interviews, I found that the transparency and accountability in the water sector could help resolve the water problems. Some experts believed that the decentralization of decision making, planning, and management could bring equitable distribution of water. Moreover, there is an urgent need to improve our water management practices in order to ensure its sustainability. Initiatives like rainwater harvesting, regulation on groundwater withdrawal, advanced water purification technologies, smart water delivery system, and wastewater management could go a long way in preventing our water sector from acute crisis. We will address the drinking water situation in greater details in the coming months leading up to Design Public 4. Stay tuned for more.

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