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OPINION| As Clock Ticks on Water Emergency, a Four-Pronged Efficiency Plan Can Help Tackle the Crisis

What is needed to cope with the water crisis is a comprehensive strategy and a roadmap for implementation including feasible measures that need to yield significant results as soon as possible.

Ajay Shankar |

Updated:July 3, 2019, 2:22 PM IST
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OPINION| As Clock Ticks on Water Emergency, a Four-Pronged Efficiency Plan Can Help Tackle the Crisis
People queue up to fill their vessels in Chennai on Saturday. (PTI)
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India has a serious water challenge. This has been dramatically highlighted by the current water crisis in Chennai. Water for the city is running out and extreme measures like carrying water on trains are being attempted.

The government has made a good beginning by bringing all water-related issues under the umbrella of the new Ministry of Jal Shakti, which is the successor of the earlier Ministry of Water Resources. Having created a new ministry and recognising the gravity of the situation, some new initiatives on water could be expected in the forthcoming Budget.

What is really needed is a comprehensive strategy and a roadmap for implementation. India does not have the luxury of time as far as water is concerned. Feasible measures need to yield significant results as soon as possible.

The most important measure which could yield substantial results in the next few years at relatively low costs is water use efficiency.

The announcement of the setting up of a Bureau of Water Use Efficiency in the Budget would signal the government’s serious commitment to water conservation. The bureau can be set up administratively. It does not need legislation.

Water is a state subject and enacting a central law is a time-consuming process. The bureau should have the mandate to promote water use efficiency. It should design schemes for attaining this objective in consultation with the state governments and experts.

It should have adequate funds to implement these schemes. With financial resources and well-designed, politically feasible schemes, the bureau should be able to get the cooperation of the state governments and start delivering results quickly.

Looking back, it can be argued that India needed to create a Bureau of Water Efficiency before it set up the Bureau of Energy Efficiency. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency has already helped in achieving a reduction in energy intensity of over 20%.

In water, a lot more is possible.

Most cities are water stressed. The situation keeps getting aggravated as cities grow and their populations rise. Water audit of the distribution system could identify losses. Analysis would suggest measures for reducing these losses.

The estimation is that these losses could be well over 40 per cent. These can easily be brought down to below 20 per cent with a modest investment. Old leaking pipes may need replacement. A system of identifying leaks at joints as soon as they emerge and fixing these would be needed. Trials may well show that water usage comes down with reliable 24x7 water supply when water is also priced suitably for consumption above minimum household needs.

The interim Budget had conveyed the government’s intention to implement the transformative Kusum programme. Under this, farmers would be given financial assistance for standalone off-grid solar water pumps and for grid-connected solar power plants. The farmers will use solar energy to pump water for irrigation, and they can sell surplus electricity to the Discom at an attractive feed in tariff.

An additional source of income from solar energy would give the farmer an incentive to use electricity economically. He would, therefore, not flood his field which is currently the predominant practice in rural India as electricity comes only at night.

He may even find it worth his while to go in for drip irrigation. This should lead to considerable saving of water in the agriculture sector, and improve the ground water situation. It is to be hoped that the Budget has a substantial enough provision for the implementation of the Kusum programme.

There is loss of water in the canal networks due to both seepage and evaporation. Cement lining of the canals would take care of seepage. Floating solar panels would reduce evaporation. The solar energy programme would get the canal surfaces within the country for installation of solar panels reducing substantially the requirement of scarce and expensive land.

Human settlements, except those along perennial rivers, have been sustained over the centuries through man made water storage in the form of ponds and tanks in villages and larger lakes around forts and cities.

The time has now come for a national planned effort using satellite imagery and computer modelling techniques to design an optimal network of water storage near large cities.

With the use of modern construction equipment and turnkey large contracts, this can be implemented in 3-5 years. At present, the guidelines for MNREGA give priority to the restoration of village ponds and tanks. While this can and should continue, the water crisis needs short gestation bigger projects for creating reservoirs and lakes to supply water to the growing population of cities across India.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, TERI, and former Secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion)

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