Water conservation, harvesting and utilization (dgAlert / Environment and People)

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dg Water Resources Management


Environment and People


Water Utilization

  • Extent & Distribution
  • Utilization
    • Sector wise utilization
    • Problems wise utilization
  • Government’s Approach to solution
    • Dams and Reservoirs
    • Water Diversion
    • Ground water utilization
    • Other approaches
    • National Water Policy
    • National River Grid
    • Water Harvesting
  • Sustainable Water Resource Utilization

Extent and Distribution:
India has an annual precipitation of 1140 mm/year, which translates into 400 million hectare meters (mham) of water availability in the country. Out of 400 mham, 70mham is lost to the atmosphere through evaporation, 215 mham recharges the Ground Water, while 115 mham flows as a surface run-off. However the actual surface runoff is 180 mham. As some water comes from Nepal, Tibet etc. These streams which come from catchment areas of other countries feeds the country’s water resources to an extent of 20 mham, while 45 mham is obtained by Ground Water regeneration. Out of 180 mham, 70.2 mham is the utilizable flow. The Ground Water resources of India have not been as properly documented as the surface water resources. Total amount of Ground water Resources amounts to 62 mham. Ground Water is available in India through Dug wells, lifting devices, tube wells etc. and is found in the four major Ground Water provinces. These provinces include: ……………

The surface water utilization is to the tune of 24 mham out of 70.2 mham for agriculture and 1.5 mham for industry. While the respective figures for the Ground Water is 12 and 1.5 mham. This means that India is endowed with an enormous potential of water, however despite having so well endowed, there are many problems that are encountered with the utilization:

  1. High Spacio-Temporal variability in the amount of rainfall. This leads to floods during one season and drought during the other season, as well as floods and drought in the same year at the same place.
  2. The increasing pollution of the water resources and the increased scarcity of the drinking water, which is going to be compounded in the near future because of the rapid rise in population.
  3. Hardly any part of India has been unaffected by floods and droughts.
  4. A high degree of inequality that exists in the distribution of Water Resources.

Government’s Approach to Solution
The government’s approach to solution of the Water Resources and related problems was based upon the immediate needs of the respective decades in which certain policies were laid down.

Dams and Reservoirs:
The initial approach to the solution of Water Resources problem was an engineering based approach with an emphasis on the construction of Dams and Reservoirs. Till date over 1900 Dams have been built with a combined storage capacity over 2,00,000 cubic meters of water. There were many reasons why government went for the construction of the dams and reservoirs as the solution to the problem of Water Resources;

  1. The government had enough experience with respect to the construction and management of canals and canal related systems.
  2. Initially the potential of Ground Water were not known.
  3. Additionally the construction of dams created enough potential for hydal power generation, flood control, navigation & fisheries development.
  4. The government wanted to centralize the distribution of the Water Resources.

However this approach never became successful because an engineering approach had many disadvantages: ………….

Ground Water Utilization:
Realizing the difficulty and the problems associated with very large integrated projects, concerned with reservoir and water diversion, the government sought to decentralize the Water Resources availability by promoting the development of Ground Water Resources. This was to be done with the aid of Rural Electrification Programme (REP). The main component of the REP was the pump set energization. Ground Water utilization offered many advantages which were not so with the larger projects;

  1. It was under farmers’ control.
  2. It required no large investment.
  3. It was a very efficient method having a very high degree of Irrigation efficiency.
  4. It was free of environmental problems.
  5. It additionally provided Drinking water facility to the people.

All these advantages led to an insatiable demand for water so much so that it was exploited indiscriminately and ruthlessly. This exploitation at some places had been so intense that there has been an irreversible drop in water table in many areas and in some coastal areas, it coincided with the intrusion of the marine brackish water making the land permanently uncultivable. Moreover people had no respect for the Ground Water Resources and caused heavy pollution of Ground Water by contaminating it with sewage, sludge, chemicals & pesticide discharge. Ground Water utilization has otherwise been a success story but this programme could not be taken up in the regions with lower Water Table, like in portions of Gujrat and Rajasthan.

Other Approaches:

Additionally the government followed three different approaches in different regions;

  1. In the remote regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat, solar photovoltaic cells were used to obtain water & Avini village in Gujarat was the first to have used the photovoltaic cell approach to extract Ground Water.
  2. In the coastal areas and the Islands of lakshwadeep, the government followed electro dialysis approach for obtaining fresh water from the sea.
  3. For the Drier regions, the government followed the cloud seeding (Artificial Rain) aided technically by the ICAR.

In 1987 the government announced the national water policy, whose main plank was the inter basin transfer of water, conjunctive use of ground and surface water & the treatment of water with certain degree of respect. However, NWP87 fell in the prescriptive approach rather than making a staunch policy statement.
During the same period, a national water mission on the lines of the telecom mission, or Dairy mission was launched with an aim to provide Drinking water facilities to the far-off remote areas. But with the change in the government later on, this approach was also abandoned.

All the government efforts were at best, desultory with a complete ignorance of the eco-geographical foundation of the country, which is evident from the fact that although no meteorological drought has taken place in India in last 14 years, still there are many areas where the reliability of rainfall is very high, have been suffering from any type of drought situation such as Ground water or surface water.
The non-ecological foundation and the ignorance of people about their own water management have dealt a big blow to the efforts of water resources problem solution. The government has hardly made any effort to inculcate into the people a sense of belonging to their water resources. People still think water resources to be a free gift of nature, not as a precious resource; moreover the drinking water problem still remains with almost 75% of the rural India. Despite the foresightedness shown by the government by NWP & National Water Mission, the ground water pollution continues at an unabated rate.

Recent Approaches:
The recent measures to solve the water crisis, a better emphasis should be placed on the utilization of our water resources in a sustainable manner. The sustainability aspect of the development becomes far more important in the wake of rising pollution.
The government has changed many of the approaches it used to follow and has come out with a new water policy and the integration & linking of the surface water by the way of national water grid. The water policy 2002 is a modified version of the earlier policy. Its components are;

  1. Setting up of a river basin organization by each state to resolve the issues relating to water within that particular state, while centre will play the role of a facilitator.
  2. The revised policy lays emphasis on integrated Water Resource development & management for optimal & sustainable utilization of the available surface and ground water.
  3. Creation of a well developed information system, use of traditional methods of water conservation, non-conventional methods of water utilization and demand of management inputs.
  4. It integrates Quantity & Quality as well as environmental considerations for water through adequate measurements.
  5. Emphasis on the maintenance of surface and ground water quality and treatment of affluents to acceptable levels.
  6. It calls for polluter to pay for polluting water resources.

Recently the government had announced the linking up of all the surface run-offs of the country to form National Water Grid. The national river integrating plan as a solution for all the problems of water resources as well as flood and drought proofing measure is not a new proposal, but this wide ranging consensus had emerged after the plan was first mooted out in 1987 by ten irrigation minister K.L. Rao and in 2002, implemented by Supreme Court.
The national river grid has been enthusiastically received for three central claims it makes for itself.

  1. It will lead to permanent Drought proofing of the country by raising the irrigation potential of the country to equal the current net sown area of 150 million hectares.
  2. It will solver or mitigate annual floods in Ganges and Brahmaputra.
  3. It would add 30,000 Mega Watts of hydal power to the national pool.

The NWDA (National Water Development Authority) had divided the project into two broad components. The Himalayan part with 14 River links estimated at 3,75,000 Crores & the peninsular component with 17 river links at 1,85,000 Crores. These links will stretch from Satluj in North to the Vaippar in the south & from the Brahmaputra in East to Mahi in the west.
The National River Grid is not the panacea for solving the water problem. There are several economic and environmental reasons for not proceeding with the project.

  1. The difficulty of lifting Water from the north, up to the Deccan. This will entail enormous amount of energy, much of which will be produced by the hydal power to begin with & renders the scheme infructuous (non-viable)from the start.
  2. It has been suggested that a central authority should construct huge reservoirs on the Ganges & Brahmaputra and link those two rivers with canals, thereby diverting surplus water South Eastwards into the Mahanadi. Any scheme of such a gigantic level ought to be questioned.
  3. On the ecological front, the creation of two hundred large water storage reservoirs and an extensive canal network would eat into the natural habitats of wild life & reshape the ecology of the country with unknown consequences.
  4. It will impoverish the river valleys and the prosperity the river valleys sustain. This is because the rivers play many important ecological roles other than supplying water to parsed regions, for example;
    1. They carry silt which replenishes top soil and enables agriculture to flourish.
    2. Floods are not merely destructive, but essential component of a rivers life. They flash out the river and recharge the drainage channel for water flow. Any attempt to stop all the water in a given river would be disastrous. A river is a nature’s method of draining the land off water and it has its own ecological rhythm. Capturing all its water and killing will lead to disruption of river basin’s hydrological cycle.
    3. It will displace local communities and will create problem of resettlement.
    4. The scheme has some notorious predecessors. Particularly the unsuccessful attempts by the Soviet Union to divert Siberian Rivers through a major canal network to feed the deficient rivers in Kazakhstan & central Asian republics.
    5. The river interlinking plan leaves many questions unanswered. India already has world’s largest irrigation infrastructure comprising about 20% of the global irrigation area. Much of it is in disrepair due to lack of funds. Of the government is not able to manage the already existing network and resources, how can it manage a project of such a dimension.

Water Harvesting:
The answer to meeting the basic needs of the people of drinking & irrigation water requirement is the reliance on local technology and local water harvesting techniques, under the control of the local communities. Fortunately in India, there is a very rich tradition of water harvesting and these water harvesting techniques will go a long way in not only decentralizing the water availability, but also minimizing the ecological problems.
Water harvesting techniques involves the optimum utilization of surface and rain water in order to sustain the heavy use of ground water. Water harvesting measures are very important and are being increasingly promoted. Water harvesting refers to capturing, collecting and storing the maximum available rain water and/or surface run-off, so that the same can be used during the lean period, for drinking, irrigation and other purposes.
There are numerous ancient and modern techniques of collecting rain water and storing it in underground tanks. The water so conserved in tanks or any other form of reservoir would infiltrate and percolate, raising ground water level and increasing the soil moisture, which would help better productivity and plant growth during the prolonged dry spell, apart from serving as an assured source of water to quench and thirst on sustainable basis. The water harvesting on the one hand conserves the water which would otherwise have gone unused and on the other hand it helps in recharging of aquifers and tackles the problem of depleting water table in areas where there is enormous pressure on ground water.
In this sense water harvesting measures have often been termed as Drought proofing measures. It is also seen as a sure way of coping with the problem of shortage of drinking water in both rural and urban areas. The various water harvesting methods practiced in India include;

  1. Construction and storage of Ahars and Pyens in Bihar and U.P.
  2. Diversion channels called khols in Himalayan region.
  3. Zings of laddakh, Zohads of Rajasthan, Baoli/Baoris of North and Central India, Eris of Tamil Nadu, Kunta of Andhra Pradesh etc.

All the traditional systems were adopted according to their specific needs and environments. Water harvesting can be achieved by in-situ harvesting, storage of water in aquifers to artificially recharge the ground water table by percolation dams, check dams etc.
Of all the methods of water harvesting, ground water storage is considered to be best method of water harvesting. Land development, soil conservation and aforestation help groundwater recharge and surface water storage. Roof top rain water harvesting and its diversion for recharging under water aquifers through existing wells/bore wells or by constructing new wells, shafts and spreading basins are other methods to capture run-off in catchment areas. Apart from it, some other methods like recharge ponds are being extensively propagated and popularized.

Advantages of water harvesting:

  • Leads to a rise in water table.
  • Leads to a rise in reduction in flood hazards and soil erosion.
  • Assures sustainability of ground water abstraction sources.
  • Improves irrigation facilities and land productivity.
  • It is economic, cost effective with no built in cost infrastructure requirements.
  • It extensively involves people’s participation and increases self reliance.
  • Eco-friendly as it does not cause pollution after harvesting.
  • Leads to revival of rural economy.
  • Saves the government’s fiscal drain towards construction of big dams and water diversion projects.
  • It migrates the effect of floods and droughts and affects drought proofing.

Such type of water harvesting measures have been successful in many places in Maharashtra in Ralagaon-siddhi, in Gujrat (Sanar in Kandla distt.), in Rajasthan (Neemi in Jaipur distt.), Bolangir distt. in Orissa and Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh.

Community Participation:
Since the problems associated with water resources happen to be a product of people’s own misendeavour or ignorance of their local ecology and since they happen to be the real sufferers, they are in a better position to conserve water resources. To this effect, they must involve themselves in the form of a community in water conservation. This type of community participation is completely different from government’s measures which generally involve meeting some specific targets. Community participation in water resources management involves the principle of equity in water resource utilization. This method of conservation will become a popular habit as well as a discipline for the people in due course with respect to water resources utilization. Since the people themselves are involved in the organization, therefore it would not head to any pollution and moreover it will entail a lot of sense of sharing the problems as well as the possible sustainable solutions.
Apart form local water harvesting techniques, and/or community participation, an equally greater emphasis needs to be paid to small storage schemes which additionally have facilities of electricity generation.

Advantages of a small and minor storage scheme:

  • They are more cost-effective with a low investment and a short gestation period.
  • They are eco-friendly and don’t cause large scale environmental damage. They may even be capable of reversing the process of degradation of natural resource base by restoring ecological balance, providing green cover over denuded areas and bring more rains.
  • They provide multiple benefits without undesirable environmental and social consequences.
  • They are capable of meeting all types of demands within a watershed where the seasonal is the primary source of water.
  • They are need specific, since they are based on the requirement of area and their sustainability in view of the local resource base and local problems.
  • They involve quick planning and implementation because they involve people’s participation and decentralized need based planning and therefore there is no alienation or project delay. The small scale structures also do not require high skills and huge costs and therefore can be locally managed.

Change in cropping pattern and restoration of original cropping pattern;

Wherever possible, the original cropping pattern needs to be restored so as to prevent any unwarranted drought type of a situation and the advent of agricultural drought because of heavy demand of water by the High Yielding Variety crops.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

One thought on “Water conservation, harvesting and utilization (dgAlert / Environment and People)”

  1. Your post about water harvesting and water conservation in India provides a real-life illustration that not all “drinking problems” are alcohol related. In fact, water shortages and the lack of clean drinking water in many parts of the world present drinking problems with a much wider scope than the dreaded alcohol-related drinking problems. Thank you for the relevant and insightful information.

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