Back 17.10.2011

Precious Drops of Water – Challenges and Opportunities for India’s Water Sector

Rain has always added a romantic touch to Bollywood films. For Indians, the start of monsoon is a point of joy after the hot and dry summer days. Water availability in India will, however, be increasingly scarce. Therefore, effective policy and actions will be needed to address the evolving challenges.

Scarce water and the impacts of climate change

Water availability has always been challenging in India due to irregular rainfall and its unavailability throughout the year. Many regions suffer from floods while other areas suffer from water shortage. Groundwater problems are particularly characteristic to India – no country depends as much on groundwater for its water needs than India does. India’s expanding industries and growing population with changing lifestyles will increase the need for more water.

The groundwater economy remains the most under-managed segment of India’s water sector. Groundwater is largely overexploited and enabled through the spread of electric tubewell technology. Water pricing has encouraged wasteful use of water. In addition, a highly subsidised supply of electricity for pumping water for crops has caused unregulated exploitation of groundwater. Decisions on groundwater exploitation are often motivated by considerations of short-term profit rather than by concern for long-term sustainability.

Climate change poses additional challenges. Already now, its impacts can be seen. Winter and the monsoon have experienced delays, and heavy rainfall has increased. Coastal erosion and sea-level rise have also occurred, reducing coastal tourism and causingmigration. There have also been increasingly extreme weather events such as cyclones, flash and sudden floods, and heavy rainfall. The increasing salinity of soil is reducing agricultural productivity, and cropping patterns developed for centuries are getting disturbed.

Actions on policy-level

Climate change is a rather recent topic in Indian environmental policy. India released the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008 as the first step to take official action on tackling the impacts of climate change. A Comprehensive Mission Document of the National Water Mission (NWM) was introduced in 2009 and officially approved recently in spring 2011. The NWM promotes, for example, citizen and state actions for water conservation and increasing water use efficiency.

The goals of the NWM have received both positive and negative views. Issues related to more research on climate impacts, improving water quality, rainwater harvesting, and groundwater recharge are considered as positive steps. On the other hand, there are severalissues in the NWM, which different actors consider “business as usual plans”, such as the emphasis of surface water storages.

Implementing the NWM is far from easy. There are water governance issues hindering its potentials to succeed, such as an overall governance crisis, inadequate involvement of actors, groundwater governance problems, disputes between different actors and stakeholders, and poor policy and law enforcement.

However, the growing perception of a water crisis and intensifying climate risks are huge motivators for India to act and implement effective policy. India’s economy is also developing, and India is getting increasingly more influence power in international forums, attracting more investors, and increasing opportunities for national and international actors in India’s water sector.

Alina Pathan is a Senior Environmental Consultant at Gaia. She has also researched India’s climate and water policy in Kolkata and New Delhi for her thesis at the University of Helsinki.

Gaia is a member of the Finnish Water Forum and has carried out several successful projects related to different aspects of the water sector such as water supply and management, flood risk management, climate adaptation, climate funding for water projects in developing countries, evaluation of Finnish development cooperation as well as Finland’s know-how and expertise in the water sector.