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Water Conservation Needs A Community Solution, Not An Engineering One

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Water has immense significance as it occupies 70% of the space on the planet. It is a necessary resource for life forms to survive on the planet. However, over the past two decades, water stress has been on the rise globally, including in India. In this context, the Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and the India Water Portal organised a distinguished lecture titled ‘How Does India Value Water?’ with Shri Rajendra Singh, Waterman of India, and Chairman of Tarun Bharat Singh in Alwar.

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Simi Mehta, CEO, IMPRI, and moderator set the tone for the lecture by appreciating the UN Rio De Janeiro session of 1992 to recognise the significance of water and declaring March 22 every year as World Water Day. In the Sustainable Development Goal era (SDG 2030), the sixth goal ‘Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All’, implying that water is an imperative abiotic resource for humanity to flourish, and the recognition of the fact took more time than it should have. The theme of World Water Day 2021 is valuing water and it is most significant for present-day India.

The Value Of Water

Rajendra Singh explained the intent of the UN on valuing water. He said that it is not about making money out of water but giving respect in the truest sense to the water resources; valuing water should also emphasise the importance of flourishing of not just human civilisation, but Nature as well. The value of water should be understood not on one particular day like Water Day, but be practised throughout the year.

For a healthy, happy and prosperous life, we have to help improve the state of water and equally respect it, Mr Singh said: “This will lead to a secured common future of mankind.” With the indigenous knowledge and Indian wisdom, the focus should be on the entry points and the six Rs – Respect of water, Reduce the use of water (meaning skill development and efficient use of water), Retreat, Recycle, Reuse, and finally, Rejuvenate.

Image credit: World Finance

By adopting water as an intrinsic cultural and spiritual part of oneself, humankind can progress. Explaining the forward linkages of conserving water, Mr Singh said that such practices will lead to subsequent security in climate change, water and food, and every other form of security. To use the same water for electricity, profit-making will lead to a stage of insecurity on all fronts, including the health and ecological front.

Mr Singh said that if Indians want to be recognised globally, then valuing water will be important because globally, only three R’s are being practised and India can get its foot back on the water wisdom and knowledge it once cherished by staying true to the six R’s mentioned above. Equally important will be India’s efforts to counter disasters for a country that sees the surplus of water and the scarcity of it as disasters.

Nikita Madan spoke about what value means to different people with context to water. It might hold a social imperative for someone, a cultural entity for someone else and for someone like her in the planning space. The services provided in the water ecosystem can help prevent floods, elevate flora and fauna, and build up recreational spaces. The value generated in all these is what holds meaning to the importance of water and water resources.

Water As A Common Resource

Dr Indira Khurana shared an anecdote of her involvement in the book Making Water Everybody’s Business by saying that the involvement of individuals and community-based approaches – all working towards conservation and the sustainable use of water – is what led to the naming of the book. A second anecdote she shared was from the World Water Forum where she met professionals who addressed their cards as water being everyone’s business or water as a business. She expressed concern on the misinterpretation of the word business and that too, on wide circulation on a global platform.

CSR Journal
Image credit: CSR Journal

She talked about the common understanding of the word ‘valuing’ and raised questions like: is it only life that should be valued?, is there an end-point on the issue of water security being restricted to only valuing it? She said that the time has come for us to act upon the next stage of valuing water — which will arise from a higher level of thinking and interpretation of the environment, water resources and progress. The emphasis on Jan Andolan will be important in realising water security in India.

Although water plays the role of fulfilling humankind’s basic survival needs, and leaving no one behind is a true aspiration, but humans should now think beyond the idea of basic fulfilment and security. For that, the idea mentioned by Mr Singh of water being a cultural entity will come to play. There is a need to be mentally and physically equipped to reach that potential of understanding and appreciating the presence of water.

The Threat of Monetising Water

The Chicago Stock Exchange recently launched future trading in water; this means that the demand and supply of water can be predicted prior to a certain time period and using mathematical formulas, a price can be attached to water. Those who wish to get access to water have to buy water at that calculated price. This is a gamble and to view water through this lens of ‘trading’ is questionable, Dr Khurana commented.

Dr Alok Sikka said that there is an understanding amongst the masses that water is a scarce resource now and needs to be conserved. But this realisation is not big enough so far and needs to be much more. So, water shouldn’t be mechanised or boiled down to as something that can be traded or priced, and instead, hold a social and ecological meaning.

Image credit: Mint

Be it culture, religion, education or environment, everything is connected to water. For economic development, too, water is essential as it is a key resource. That being said, it is also important that governments and different institutions make efforts to conserve this valuable resource so that there is no misuse or overuse of it.

He further said that managing water is not just an engineering solution, but a solution based on integrated approaches. For socially acceptable water solutions, there has to be a community-driven approach that keeps in view the local ecology. Only then, Dr Sikka said, would there be a holistic and an all-round solution for water’s value system.

Water Accessibility

Dr Sikka then talked about the importance of resilience in our food system, water system and ecological system in tackling climate change, which is one of the biggest threats today. The entry point of any resilience action is natural resources and within natural resources, water acts as the entry point since it has correlations with other resources. So, assessing water quantity and water risks is important.

Finally, water security is not about water availability but ‘accessibility’ as well, Dr Sikka added. The inclusive approach should be pushed forward via gender equity and social inclusion, with the changing climatic patterns affecting air and water and making its unfortunate and uncertain contribution to water risks.

Secondly, the changing lifestyle and dietary habits are responsible for the shifting of water usage. The multiple dimensions of water demand have to be internalised. The present practice has been on focusing more on water supply while our action should be oriented towards managing the demand side, be it for domestic or industrial use.

Image credit: Oxfam

Madan shared that around 40% of the population will not get access to drinking water by 2030. Even today, approximately two lakh people die every year in India due to a lack of access to safe and clean water. On the policy and development front, which Madan believed will bring corrective changes and reforms, she commented that work has been going on gradually and steadily and the goal is soon to be realised with time.

Water Management

Madan took note of the National Water Policy of 2012 that speaks of improved management of water resources. She gave instances of the government projects such as the ‘Holistic Management of Urban Water Resources’ that works on conserving rivers, wetlands and other water bodies in urban spaces. An initiative to make every city realise that they must come out with their own ‘Urban River Management Plan’ and bring it into practice should become the eventual focus of the project. Further, cities should be encouraged to mandate citizen engagement in the incorporation of water management practices.


Rajendra Singh suggested that the country needs a water literacy movement wherein skill development in the efficient use of water is incorporated in the culture and behaviour of the country. Dr Khurana located the concept of राष्ट्रीय जल विरादरी (National Water Fraternity), following the direction of Rajendra Singh, which has been successful in bringing in discussions by creating small pockets of parliament for rivers.

The government, too, is emphasising this movement’s importance and brought the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ATAL JAL) to improve groundwater management through community participation. An integrated approach of all ministries and organisations working cumulatively is required and the issue of water needs to be seen as a nexus of Food-Water-Energy.

Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Rajendra Singh further pointed out that linking crop patterns with rain patterns is an important tool. Agriculture is the most essential or the only way to reach an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, he said. Solving the climate crisis in agriculture that is affecting the farmers of the country and leading to food insecurity is the need of the hour and demands our utmost attention and policy focus.

two women farmers on agriculture fields

The ‘community-driven decentralised approach of water and natural resources management that has been in the workings of the agriculture sector and for domestic cooking (biomass) should be taken ahead as a tool to adapt and mitigate changes in the climate.

Water Divide

Dr Indira Khurana pointed that the cause of water conflicts can arise not just in cities but also in inter-state and inter-country regions. Water has the quality of being used as a tool for peace, but instead, it ends up being used as a tool of weapon. We must delve deeper into the issue of the water crisis by explaining that people from the villages migrate to the cities in large numbers hoping to get better access to resources, including water (water that was meant to be used by the rural population is being used to feed the urban masses).

The issue remains that water is not being used proportionately. She, thus, raised the question: Why can a place like Delhi still not be called a water-secured place? This wicked policy issue can be and should be best resolved by first securing the water needs of those who tend to migrate and the vulnerable population who are in dire need, and from whom the water rights have been ‘snatched’. Otherwise, it will lead to more uncertainty and more conflicts.

The Way Forward

On the issue of gender, Dr Khurana stated that women understand the importance of water and continuity of water more than anyone else. Despite all issues, women tend to make their best efforts possible to manage and conserve water. These efforts should be taken to the cities where women can lead and bring effective water reforms. If जल ही जीवन है (water is life), then do we really acknowledge it, she questioned.

Dr Alok Sikka pointed out that the water patterns in India are very diverse and need localised intervention measures. Speaking about the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s work on Climate Smart Villages, he said that an integrated approach was taken for natural resources management, crop, livestock, fisheries, custom hiring centres, et cetera, and demonstrated across 150 villages spanning different districts with positive results. The concern and focus are also how fast and how best the different climate Adaptation Plans can be all scaled up, where work is being carried on.

Image credit: ORF

Dr Sikka mentioned that a water-budget-based planning of land and water is the need of the hour and this adequate allocation of resources, along with studying the vulnerability of an area, will lead to better frameworks for developing water-based projects and initiatives. Participatory groundwater management, aquifer management and water management for better water management are required.

Nikita Madan said that there should be city-level and basin-level plans for the same, along with its integration in the master plans. These are some of the long-term plans for ensuring policy-level integration. For short term policy intervention, she mentioned an example of building buffers or other related structures to conserve river water. The need will be to make policies accessible and implementable at the ground level.

Rajendra Singh shared some insights on the interlinking of rivers by saying that it won’t make India drought and flood free. Rather, there needs to be a linkage in the mind and soul of the society with the rivers. Secondly, he criticised the government’s half-hearted pledge that in the mission of building pipes and making accessible water, the government will only focus on the former but to actually work on the latter will be a challenge; only communities can make that happen.

He reinstated the meaning of ‘environmental flow’ of rivers by pointing out the flawed concept of engineers tagging them with mere numbers and percentages whereas it should be about respecting the diversity of the agro-ecological-climatic aspect, respecting the rights of the rivers, and the cultural, social and spiritual aspects of the river. Only then can a true ‘environmental flow’ can be decided upon. Rajendra Singh finally urged everyone to take ahead this conversation and build a team of water and climate experts to solve the respective problems.

Youtube Video for How Does India Value Water IMPRI #WebPolicyTalks

Acknowledgement: Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri

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