The need to redefine our attitudes and approach to conserving, protecting and managing India’s water resources has never been more compelling. Ensuring water security is one of the primary determinants of our common goal of a sustainable and better quality of life for all.
For far too long, we have viewed and managed the different elements of the water cycle in a fragmented manner, with consequences that are only too visible: source pollution, depletion of availability, catastrophic floods and differential access across income groups, with the poor having to pay much more in relative terms than the well-off for a due share of water. According to a World Bank study, rising temperatures and water mis-management could curtail GDP by nearly 3 per cent and affect the quality of life of nearly half of the population over the next few decades. The adverse health impacts of a business-as-usual approach to water management are also cause for deep concern, quite apart from the consequences of water scarcity and inequitable access on the cohesiveness of the social fabric.
Against this worrying backdrop, the creation of the Jal Shakti Ministry by the union government is cause for optimism, recognising as it does the need for a joined-up approach to the entire water management question, as well as according primacy to the long neglected issue of source protection and conservation.
Sustainable management of this priceless resource will need the involvement of all: the union and the state governments, the local bodies, the private sector, civil society groups, institutions, as well as citizens. This effort will have to start with a perception shift - from viewing water as a resource that flows out of taps, to understanding and imbibing the entire water resource as a seamless whole. Such an appreciation will lead to a more respectful approach to water issues, particularly in terms of preserving water sources and protecting them from pollution.
The policy regime and the behavioural incentives allied with water use would also need to be amended, particularly in the realm of agriculture, which is the single biggest consumer of this scarce resource. The heavily subsidised provision of power for agricultural pump-sets and the promotion of water intensive crops have been primary factors in the depletion of India’s water table, which is now leading to desertification, loss of livelihoods and migration.
Effective water management, and particularly source protection, needs the committed involvement of local communities to be successful. This is an endeavour that is best undertaken in mission mode, with the participation of grassroots institutions, ranging from local schools, panchayats, NGOs, the private sector and other civil-society organisations.
As KPMG in India’s 2019 CEO Outlook Report points out - one of the primary concerns of CEOs when planning for the future is around questions of environmental sustainability and climate change. It is not just their roles as stewards of their firms, but also as concerned citizens, that animate their approach to these issues. Water is life, as they say, and sustainable water management would be core to any strategy that seeks to protect the future of the nation and the flourishing of all Indians.
The enhanced awareness about the preciousness and fragility of this resource, as well as the initiatives taken by the government to bring these issues into focus, are hopeful signs, because managing India’s waters in an environmentally sustainable fashion is a matter that transcends business concerns, and affect the survival and well-being of us all.
(A version of this article appeared in The Financial Express on November 25, 2019)