Water conference: important recommendations


Water was the theme of the Foundation Day held from August 7-9, 2018. The conference dealt with many topics like demand and supply augmentation, climate change and water, grassroots involvement with water issues and gender aspects related to water.

The main point that emerged from the consultation is that water availability is not the real problem but its management is. Cost effective technologies to recycle and to desalinate water along with finding alternate sources of water are available to tackle the problem, but as many of the scientists noted, the solution is not a short term one. It requires long term systematic planning, spanning at least 10-15 years. Water is a cross-cutting theme and requires the cooperation of a variety of stakeholders including government departments, academicians, grassroot institutions, corporations as also the citizens. Also, water laws are poor and need greater boost. Finally, education and awareness go a long way in solving the problem of water management.

Technical Sessions

Giving an overview of the ground water scenario in India, Dr. E. Sampath Kumar, Member (South), Central Ground Water Board, Faridabad, pointed out that “there is an unequal distribution of ground water in India with 80% of the resource confined to 20% of the area”. Moreover, water quality is also poor as it contaminated with chemicals such as arsenic, fluoride, nitrates and iron in more than 20 States in India. Regulatory mechanisms and use of water efficient techniques, reallocation of water for irrigations versus other sectors and are some measures to take towards sustainable water management, he added. On similar lines, Dr. E.J. James, Professor & Officiating Vice-Chancellor, Karunya Institute of Technology and Sciences, Coimbatore, spoke about the high level of water stress in India, with the per capita availability estimated to steadily decline by 2050. “This is due to systematic exploitation of the ground water in the post-independence period”, he said. Prof. James said only an integrated water resources management for sustainable water use could be the way to solve water crisis.

Dr. S.L. Patil, Head, ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil & Water Conservation, Bellary gave an example of conservation in the semi-arid areas of the Deccan. “Every year 70,000 bore wells are getting added, but better watershed management and groundwater recharge systems means that there is increased availability of water in the wells.” He recommended that “water harvesting /ground water recharge structures may be designed/planned on scientific principles.” He also encouraged the use of subsidies for solar energy that could optimize ground water usage.

Dr Asit K Biswas, Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, spoke about the exploitation of water for industrialization, and the increasing water use due to urbanization and population growth over the last 50 years. “We must look at how to increase agricultural production with less water and less land, since India does not have extra water or land”, he said. He also stated that we need to learn from countries like China and cities like Barcelona and Denmark, who use very little water in per capita terms. Highlighting the increasing water consumption in India for agriculture, Dr. Gayathri Mohan, Consultant, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi, said “78% of fresh water is allocated to agriculture but only 48% of gross cropped area is under irrigation”. She also pointed about India has been planting water intensive crops, for eg paddy and sugarcane consume 60% of the water, which starves other plants. 

In order to solve this problem, Dr. R. Sabarinathan, Senior Manager (Agronomy), NITFAM, Coimbatore, suggested moving away from cultivation rice from flood irrigation. “Drip irrigation is the only alternative to flood and with drip irrigation farmers can continue to grow rice on saline soil”, he said. Moreover, paddy grown with drip irrigation is healthier and less polluting and also produces far less methane than rice from flood irrigation, he added.

In a similar vein, Dr. R. Sakthivadivelu, Emeritus Scientist, Anna University, Chennai highlighted the benefits of using drip irrigation for farming. “Drip and sprinkler irrigation has the potential to reduce the amount of excessive extraction of groundwater by two-thirds.” He said that there was not adequate financing/ subsidies to ensure that existing irrigation infrastructure is maintained. He felt that agriculture gets the last priority in water allocation among sectors and even within this sector there is competition among water users i.e. both public users and private users. He highlighted the need for strengthening cross sectoral water governance for better co-ordination and resolving conflicts. “Grassroot involvement and active participation [of all sectors] in all phases of irrigated agriculture is the need of the hour,” he pointed out.

Mr. Sachin Oza, Executive Director, DSC Foundation, Ahmedabad, spoke on participatory irrigation management, under the Dharoi project on the Sabarmati river. The National Water Policy of the GoI (1987) advocated the involvement of farmers in management of irrigation systems, particularly in water distribution and collection of water rates and the project has helped in the setting up of water users’ associations. While pointing out the benefits from the project, Dr Oza said there was an increase in irrigated area in the range of 10% to 36% and also a rise in area under food grains such as wheat and paddy. “New crops such as onions, grapes, sugarcane and G.M.cotton could also be introduced and there was an increase in productivity of wheat, soyabean, maize, cotton and pulses”, he said.

To avoid growing crops that consume excessive water, Dr. Thomas Falk, Senior Scientist, ICRISAT, Patancheru, Hyderabad, recommended increasing the minimum support price for crops grown through water efficient ways. He said, “Water saved from one cropping system can be distributed to other cropping systems” and highlighted how greater awareness about which crop is more profitable under which system could help address how is allocated at the farm-level and at the policy level.

Climate change has played a significant role in water. Tracing the impact of the climate change on water resources, Dr. Marcella D’Souza, Executive Director, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), Pune, said “We need to have an integrated wholistic plan for a future climate change scenario”. She noted that water management should not be looked at in isolation but to be based on studying such variables as the land use pattern, the topography, changing cropping pattern while also looking at the plans at the block and district levels. Dr. R. Balasubramanian, Professor and Head (Agricultural Economics), TNAU, said “there are hardly any empirical studies on climate change on ground water except in the developed countries.” He explained how apart from competitive deepening on wells, rising mean temperatures was causing well depth to increase and subsidies on electricity was causing depletion of the ground water. Dr. Man Singh, Project Director, Water Technology Centre, IARI, New Delhi, on the same lines said that the provision of free electricity and irrigation water was not sustainable. He said, “Flood water can be put to good use if it is channeled properly,” and suggested creating a network of channels along with linking of rivers.

Local initiatives and ancient technologies have played an important role in the past in the conservation of water. Mr Sabarishakti, Research Scholar, presenting Dr S Rajendran, Professor, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Dindigul’s work, noted that ancient systems such as the kudimaramanthu practiced in Tamil Nadu can be revived for water conservation. “This is a centuries old practice of building and maintaining ponds and lakes with community involvement” and for each water body, a Neerkaatti, was in charge of monitoring water flow and storage. “This system became neglected during colonial times but the Tamil Nadu government has allocated Rs.100 crores to revive 1,519 lakes for PWD allotted tanks”. However, construction of buildings on ancient water sources, encroachments and garbage have all added to the problem and involvement of local communities can help the problem, he added.

On conservation of tanks, Dr. R. Seenivasan, DHAN Foundation, Madurai said, “Farmers’ associations can provide legitimate sources of revenue from the tanks and sustain their interest in protecting the tanks.” He noted that methodical surveys of all river systems, supply channel networks to study their problems, issues and remedies was needed to protect all channels in the state. Moreover, he suggested that panchayats be levied with strict penalties and also incentives to protect these water bodies.

Farm ponds are one of the main sources of water for small farmers. Dr A S Chatterjee, working with the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), mentioned various agronomic practices such as bunding, mulching, integrated crop management, crop rotation as some of the practices adopted to conserve water. He emphasizes on undertaking good agronomic practices like row intercropping, low intensity drip irrigation, worm composting, mulching, alter cropping methods to suit the current conditions; for eg. using rainwater collected from roof for mudfish rearing and duck-fish integration.

Dr. V. Paul Raja Rao, Executive Director, Bharathi Integrated Rural Development Society, Guntur gave an overview of the various ground water enhancement schemes that he was promoting among the local community. He spoke about the need for ground water governance through the Panchayati Raj institutions. “There is a need for famers and community based organisations to make informed decisions on land and water management taking into account impacts of climate variation based on scientific and local knowledge”, he said. He also emphasized how the organisation is involved in teaching crop water budgeting and establishment of ground water management committees to the famers.

A similar point was made by Dr. Stephen Ngigi, Kenya Rainwater Association, Nairobi. In Kenya, farmers have small farms and the country is forced to import food frequently due to successive droughts. He cited the example of farm ponds to transform farming and pointed to how the Build, Operate and Transfer technologies can be used to scale up operations.

Re-use and recycling water is another option. Dr Pawan Kumar Labhasetwar, Senior Principal Scientist, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, gave the example of how 60 countries use reclaimed water with China, Mexico and California in the US being pioneers. “We need to assess health risk before suggesting reuse as the reclaimed water contains pathogens, heavy metals, and other elements that are harmful to human health”, he said. A similar point was made Dr. Aviraj Datta, Scientist, ICRISAT, Patancheru, when he spoke about recycling grey water – waste water coming from the households, excluding the toilets, into green water (clean water that can be used for irrigating crops).

Dr Indumathi M Nambi, Professor, Environmental and Water Resource Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras provided examples of experiments done on contaminated water from textile industries for irrigation. The study found that the water could not be used for irrigating food crops. Another study done by her team found that the antimicrobial resistance has increased with higher pesticide content in irrigation water. While recommending further studies to study waste water, she said, “Irrigation should not become a source of pollution- stricter guidelines on standards for irrigation water quality is the need of the hour.” Meanwhile, Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, Assistant Professor, Annamalai University, Chidambaram, suggested improvement of water quality through the management of aquatic weeds and algae. He pointed out the different varieties of carp fish (for eg. grass carp and silver carp) that could act as natural inhibitors of weeds and algae. This method has been successfully carried out in major temples.

Using sea water and biosaline agriculture is another alternative for water augmentation. Dr. Amitava Das, J.C. Bose National Fellow and Director, CSIR-Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute, Gujarat, said there was a huge scope for desalination in India, and is currently more popular in the Middle –Eastern countries. “The cost of desalinating water has been falling over the years. For brackish water, it is paise per litre, for seawater it is 12 paise using reverse osmosis process”. Dr. Syed Amir Basha, Chief Technology Officer, Desalination, VA Tech Wabag Ltd., Chennai spoke about the latest technologies available to make desalination a more feasible solution to provide drinking water. He said, “Currently reverse osmosis is cheapest among methods used to desalinate water and new inventions such as the low pressure Reverse Osmosis membranes and high efficiency energy recover devices have made Sea water Reverse Osmosis a low-cost technology. [Moreover], if electricity costs are brought down, water production costs will come down too”, Dr Basha pointed out.

Dr. V. Selvam, Executive Director, MSSRF, Chennai, explained about how halophyte farming can increase the adaptive capacity of the communities at the coast to sea-level rise. “Halophytes have high salinity tolerance but cannot withstand freshwater”, he said. MSSRF is cultivating six types of halophytes, with some good as cattle feed, others can be used for bio-fuel, bio-salt and edible oil and a few can address food security of the communities. However, Dr Selvam pointed out that halophyte farming could only be a stop-gap approach and more research was needed to access its viability in the long run. Dr. V.B. Kuligod, Professor (Soil Science), University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, spoke about the degradation of soils due to salinisation, with 1% of land degraded by salination resulting in a 3.8% crop loss. He said, “Soils become highly saline due to indiscriminate irrigation, especially for paddy and sugarcane”, and pointed out that open sub-surface drains, along with soil management for maintaining soil salinity, help reclaim saline lands.

Looking at the gender aspects of water, Dr. Nitya Rao, Professor (Gender and Development), School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, UK, said, “Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water”. Especially with respect to the division of labour, women are bear a heavy load either both for household use and agriculture and in many cases the roles of women are unpaid work. Access to water, are also largely based on caste and class divisions and women from lower classes are not allowed to access water from taps and wells meant for higher classes, meaning that women have to travel further if they need to get clean water.

Dr. Seema Kulkarni, Secretary / Senior Fellow, Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, Pune, pointed out that there was very little data about how many women had access to water. As water affects women in more than one way, she called for water committees to be set up with women represented in these committees. “Right now in committees on agriculture and irrigation, participation is restricted to those who land”, and even if women are represented, in most cases, their involvement is seen in mostly the care and nurture sectors. She said there was a need to change the dominant narratives on women and to break gender stereotypes of work.

Dr. Amit Mitra, Independent Consultant, New Delhi, said we need an ecosystem management to water conservation. He also spoke about how water is gendered and also caste dominated. “Ethnicity/caste often determines who gets the water first”, he said. He also noted that earlier people considered the ecosystem and farmed accordingly, but now there is a shift from community choices to individual choices where the individual does not consider the ecosystem.  Citing one example of this Dr Mishra said, “Bt cotton and eucalyptus cultivation leads to water depletion, and women generally prefer traditional cotton varieties and often resist eucalyptus”, but have no say generally in what is being cultivated. He also reiterated the point that although women form part of committees, they usually have no say there.

Meanwhile, Ms. Santha Sheela Nair, IAS (Retd.), Former Chairperson, State Planning Commission, Tamil Nadu said, “There is a step motherly attitude to water by the State, with subsidies in the urban area and not in rural area.” She described the need for ‘ecological sanitation’ that involves waterless technology or low-water sanitation technology. This is particularly relevant to bring down the work burden of women, who spend many hours collecting water for household use and sanitation, she said.

Dr. Divya Susan Soloman, Research Associate, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, talks about the agrarian transformation in Western Tamil Nadu i.e in the Upper Bhavani Basin,a hot semi-arid region. Here, because of the erratic rainfall, people have shifted to growing more lucrative cash crops, in order to finance boring of wells and paying off their debts. Migration of men is higher and women have higher work burden in the form of agricultural work in addition to household tasks. “The security that a regular job offers in contrast to the variable nature of agriculture is one of the main motivations of families to encourage children to move out of agriculture and there is more emphasis on education, particularly that of boys”, she said. She also suggested that women have access to alternative sources of income, which could also fulfil women’s aspirations for education.   

Going forward, water conservation requires planning and management. Drip and micro irrigation are some of the methods mentioned by scientists to conserve water on irrigation. “We are trying to bring 5% of irrigated land under drip irrigation every year. This will extend water deficit emergence only by 3 years, and reduce the demand for water by one-third by 2030”, said Dr. Shresth Tayal, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Natural Resources, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. Dr. Dilip N. Kulkarni, President, Sustainable Agriculture and Strategy, Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd., Jalgaon, spoke about how water policies in irrigation need to address dual needs – increasing the total amount of water for plants and increasing water productivity. Highlighting the benefits of the different methods of irrigation, he said, “Water use efficiency through pipes is 59% whereas through open canals is only 34%, especially because of evaporation.” He also pointed to the advantages of drip irrigation in paddy which saves 60% of water when compared to flood irrigation.

Water laws also allow for better management of the resource. On formulating a water policy, Prof. S. Janakarajan, President, SaciWATERs (South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies), Secunderabad said, "The whole driving force behind formulating national water policy should be to promote principle of equity, assurance of protected drinking water supply,  and sustainable use of water." But as Prof. Philippe Cullet, Professor of International and Environmental Law, SOAS University of London & Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, points out “Reliance on policy instruments do not take us forward if there is no enforcement mechanism. There can't be enforcement mechanism if there are no statutory laws.”

Education also plays an important role in raising awareness. Dr. Sara Ahmed, Adjunct Professor, Centre for Heritage Management, Ahmedabad University, spoke about raising awareness with greater engagement with the youth. Education is an important tool to build the connect between communities and water conservation. Interdisciplinary and public-private partnerships are the way forward.” Further, ‘water museums’ can be used as education resources to engage with youth to re-imagine water”, she pointed out.