Fluoride Action Network

India needs National Water Commission to deal with new challenges: report

Source: Live Mint | August 10th, 2016 | By Elizabeth Roche and Pretika Khanna
Location: India

New Delhi: The committee on restructuring the Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board in its final report has recommended a new National Water Commission (NWC) be established as the nation’s apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance.

The report has recommended an urgent overhaul of the current water management systems. Headed by former planning commission member Mihir Shah, the committee said that a paradigm shift was required in both surface and groundwater management policies to face new national challenges. The committee submitted its report last month.

The report pointed out that the Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board were created in a different era and needed restructuring to work on a new mandate in a manner that overcomes the schism between groundwater and surface water.

“India faces unprecedented challenges of water management in the 21st century. As the water crisis deepens by the day, the old 20th century solutions appear to be distinctly running out of steam. These solutions were devised in an era when India had yet to create its irrigation potential,” said the report.

“While big dams played a big role in creating a huge irrigation potential, today the challenge is to effectively utilise this potential, as the water that lies stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. At the same time, groundwater, which truly powered the Green Revolution, faces a crisis of sustainability. Water levels and water quality have both fallen creating a new kind of crisis, where the solution to a problem has become part of the problem itself. The new challenge is to manage our aquifers sustainably,” it said.

Nearly half of India’s farm lands are un-irrigated and groundwater is the major source of water for irrigated holdings, data from the agriculture ministry shows. For instance, for 45% of irrigated land the source of water is tube wells drawing groundwater resources. In comparison, canals irrigate just 26% of irrigated land, and tanks and wells only 22% of irrigated land.

Recent instances of droughts and farmers’ suicides underscored the gravity of the situation, the report said. “Climate change poses fresh challenges as more extreme rates of precipitation and evapo-transpiration exacerbate impacts of floods and droughts,” it said.

If the current pattern of water usage continues, “about half of the demand for water will be unmet by 2030,” the report warned, pointing out that water tables were getting depleted in most parts of India.

As much as 60% of India’s districts faced groundwater over-exploitation and serious quality issues, it said, adding that contamination by fluoride, arsenic, mercury, and even uranium was another major challenge.

India has invested Rs.4 trillion in major and medium irrigation projects since Independence, the report said, adding that this had created an irrigation potential of 113 million hectares, which was actually utilized by 89 million hectares. However the gap between created potential and utilisation “is growing by the year.”

“By focusing on low-hanging fruit we could add 35 million hectares to irrigated area over next 10 years at a very low cost,” the report said. “For this we need to shift focus from construction to management and maintenance.”

The commission report recommended that NWC be headed by a chief national water commissioner and should have full time commissioners representing hydrology, hydrogeology, hydrometeorology, river ecology, ecological economics, agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and participatory resource planning and management.

Analysts agreed that an overhaul was the need of the hour.

“If you look at the functioning of our water sector and the direction in which we are going, no doubt a major overhaul is required. CWC has become a problem rather than getting solutions and CGWB tends be treated like a small child,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

“The recommendations are welcome. The solutions offered may not help as creating a mega institute is going to be more problematic,” he added.

The seven-member committee was constituted in September last year to ensure development of water resources in the country.