India has a Groundwater Problem

"Our wells and springs are drying up, and as a consequence of this depletion, our groundwater quality is also deteriorating" Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

“Our wells and springs are drying up, and as a consequence of
this depletion, our groundwater quality is also deteriorating”
Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Rachita Vora and Smarinita Shetty
MUMBAI, India, Oct 29 2019 (IPS)

A majority of India’s water problems are those relating to
groundwater—water that is found beneath the earth’s surface.
This is because we are the largest user of groundwater in the
world, and therefore highly dependent on it.

At just over
260 cubic km per year
, our country uses
25 percent of all groundwater extracted globally
, ahead of USA
and China. And because
70 percent of the water supply in agriculture today is
groundwater
, it will remain the lifeline of India’s water
supplies for years to come.

Despite this, we have an extremely poor understanding of
groundwater, which impacts both policy and practice. In our
conversation with Himanshu
Kulkarni
 and Uma
Aslekar
 of
Advanced Centre for Water Resources and Development (ACWADAM)
,
they walk us through some of the reasons why this is the case.

 

Why is it that we neither understand nor prioritise
groundwater in our policies?

This is largely because of two reasons: Groundwater is
invisible—it is literally not visible to the eye because it is
well below the ground. What is out of sight, is usually out of
mind! Groundwater is also a highly complex subject that is governed
by many ‘conditionalities’. It is this ignorance, by both users
and people in governance, that has contributed to the situation we
find ourselves in today.

Moreover, groundwater education still focuses largely on
‘exploring’ new sources of groundwater that will lead to the
‘development’ of groundwater resources. The subject of
groundwater in aquifers is often considered quite complex as
compared to providing groundwater supplies from wells, even if
these wells continue to become deeper and deeper as groundwater
levels decline. In the gap between supply on one side, and demand
on the other, we are losing out on components of groundwater
management from many systems of education delivery.

We need a demystified but correct understanding of aquifers
(underground rocks that are sources of groundwater), their
properties and how they are used, so that we can make the critical
mass of users and decision makers understand them and act on them
appropriately.

 

 

We neither understand nor prioritise the groundwater issue because what is out of sight, is usually also out of mind. | Illustration – Priya Dali

We neither understand nor prioritise the groundwater issue
because what is out of sight, is usually also out of mind. |
Illustration – Priya Dali

 

What will that take?

We at ACWADAM conduct training programmes for various
organisations and government agencies. If one is explaining the
concept of aquifers, for instance, the semantics, pedagogy, and the
delivery of training on the whole will need to be different for
different stakeholders.

If one has to explain aquifers to a groundwater agency,
hydrogeologists, or people with a technical background, one will
need to use a different language than that when one is speaking to
communities and end users.

Similarly, the lexicon on groundwater will need to be completely
different if one is talking to decision makers and technocrats, who
have no technical knowledge on the subject. The ability to clearly
articulate and communicate the groundwater problem and the possible
solutions, is therefore, the key to implementing processes of
groundwater management.

 

If you were to state, simply, the primary issues when it
comes to groundwater in India, what would they be?

There are basically three issues. The first is depletion. Our
wells and springs are drying up, and as a consequence of this
depletion, our groundwater quality is also deteriorating.

When there is less water in an aquifer, the concentration of
ions increases. When aquifers get recharged sufficiently,
contaminants are diluted. Whether it is groundwater use in
agriculture or in domestic supply, serious issues of contamination
like fluoride and arsenic, which are no longer isolated cases and
are found across large regions of the country, must be addressed.
This contamination is the second problem, and it is very often
related to the first problem of depletion.

We need a demystified but correct understanding of aquifers
(underground rocks that are sources of groundwater), their
properties and how they are used, so that we can make the critical
mass of users and decision makers understand them and act on them
appropriately

The third, which is not readily perceived as a problem, is that of
the increasing disconnect between groundwater and ecosystems,
particularly due to the environmental impact of depletion and
contamination. As a consequence of large-scale groundwater usage
for human needs, the value of the service that aquifers provided to
the environment—say to river flows—has significantly reduced.
How does one then make the connection between the environment and
groundwater, especially when that connection has been altered and
severed?

Therefore, we need an integrated approach. Even if in one area,
depletion seems to be the biggest problem, we need an approach that
addresses contamination, and recognises the ecosystem role of
groundwater in resolving the problem of depletion. Doing one and
not the other will not help resolve any one problem in its
entirety.

 

How then, do we solve the problem in its entirety, at
scale?

Broad brush approaches implemented at scale will not work. Let
us consider an example: you have a new idea to solve a groundwater
problem, and it has five critical elements. The district you are
working in has 20 talukas. You cannot implement all five components
of your idea in those 20 talukas. So, what will you do? You will
likely take the easiest option and leave the rest. This doesn’t
work out since the complex natures of aquifers and human behaviours
cannot be solved with a broad brush of a simple, big ticket
solution. You need an appropriate (scientifically validated) and
acceptable (communities must be able to agree and co-operate in
implementation) solution to make impact.

Alternatively, you might choose to implement all five ideas in
one village of each taluka, where they are possible to implement.
But then scaling-out such solutions becomes challenging. There are
thus no big-ticket solutions in groundwater. All the same, it is
necessary to work at the micro level even though it is challenging
to engage with policy makers who would rather have groundwater
solutions that run across large swathes of the landscape; many of
them would prefer solutions at scale that create a buzz in the
short-term rather than an impact in the longer-term.

 

Given these inherent challenges, what is it that India
needs to do?

If we are to address our water problems, there are a few things
that the country needs:

 

Aggregate micro-level solutions to construct a larger
picture that can inform policy

Groundwater in India is rather disaggregated in terms of its
occurrence, usage, and problems. Hence, we need disaggregated
approaches leading to customised solutions that are appropriate to
locations and situations of groundwater problems. Further, it is
important to pull together these smaller solution pieces to
construct a larger picture. This is the reason why we need
practitioners who have worked on the ground and attempted to solve
the problems, to be actively involved in policy framing; else,
things will not change and the divide between policies, and
practices on groundwater management will only continue to widen
further.

 

Stronger public institutions dedicated to groundwater
management

Additionally, we have an institutional vacuum when it comes to
dealing with groundwater. Let us consider an example from
Maharashtra. More than 80 percent of Maharashtra’s rural drinking
water supply comes from groundwater wells. Protecting and
sustaining this source is a function of how groundwater is used in
agriculture so that drinking water supply in the villages of the
state remains secure.

The Ground Water
Survey and Development Agency (GSDA)
falls under the ambit of
the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. It has little to do
with water used for agriculture—which accounts for less than 5
percent of water used in rural Maharashtra—and hence cannot
influence policy or usage with respect to that. Organisations like
GSDA must be strengthened and encouraged to engage in partnership
models of working with grassroots organisations that are working on
community-level water management.

This is just one example of how a lack of institutional thinking
impacts solutions. Many states don’t even have a GSDA equivalent.
Strengthening agencies dealing with groundwater becomes quite
important in this regard.

 

To demystify the science and involve people in
solution-making

Some important questions we need to consider include: How does
one get people to participate and cooperate in efforts dealing with
groundwater management? How do communities convert competition and
conflict to participation and cooperation? Our experience at
ACWADAM is that when you undertake an effort in demystifying
science, and involve communities and committed people in the
development of that science, you can achieve improved decision
making at any level. And once you achieve this, your outcomes
automatically change even though they are often not ideal. However,
even such imperfect outcomes significantly enhance water security
in regions that depend on groundwater.

 

More attention and investment in promoting partnerships
and collaborations

There is a grave need for infusing interdisciplinary science in
the processes of groundwater management and governance. Only if and
when such science is made to bear upon achieving decentralised
water governance, will we be able to solve many problems on
groundwater. It is important, therefore, to realise that no single
agency holds the key to problem identification and resolution in
the sector of groundwater. Hence, catalysing collaborations that
integrate the many disciplines required to develop sustainable
groundwater management solutions, is needed; such partnerships must
form the backbone of public efforts to protect, restore, and manage
groundwater resources.

 

 

Rachita Vora is Co-founder and Director at IDR.
Before this, she led the Dasra Girl Alliance, a Rs. 250 crore
multi-stakeholder platform that sought to improve maternal and
child health outcomes, and empower adolescent girls in India. She
has over a decade of experience, having led teams in the areas of
financial inclusion, public health and CSR. She has also led
functions across strategy, business development, communications and
partnerships, and her writing has been featured in the Guardian,
Stanford Social Innovation Review, Next Billion and Alliance
Magazine. Rachita has an MBA from Judge Business School at
Cambridge University and a BA in History from Yale University.

 

Smarinita Shetty is Co-founder and CEO at IDR.
She has more than 20 years of experience leading functions across
strategy, operations, sales and business development, largely in
startup environments within corporates and social enterprises.
Prior to IDR, Smarinita worked at Dasra, Monitor Inclusive Markets
(now FSG), JP Morgan and The Economic Times. She also co-founded
Netscribes–India’s first knowledge process outsourcing firm.
Her work and opinion have been featured in The Economist, Times of
India, Mint and The Economic Times. Smarinita has a BE in Computer
Engineering and an MBA in Finance, both from Mumbai University.

 

This story was originally
published
 by India Development Review (IDR)

The post India
has a Groundwater Problem
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
India has a Groundwater Problem