The launching of a novel scheme under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) by the Prime Minister in December for ensuring piped water supply to all rural households by 2024, is a welcome step in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (6.1) for achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.
With World Water Day being observed on March 22, it’s an important time to look at access to water, where India stands now, and where it aims to reach in the near future.
India is home to 18 percent of global population but has only 4 percent of global fresh water resources. India’s per capita water availability is on the decline. Water demand is projected to surpass the water supply in the near future. Groundwater reserves are on the decline. India’s per capita water storage capacity is one of the lowest in the world — only 8 percent of yearly rainfall is captured for storage. Water distribution in India is skewed. Due to inadequate and unsafe water supply and unimproved sanitation, about 200,000 people, mostly children, die in India every year.
In India, out of 178.7 million of rural households, only 18.3 percent have tap connection of water. The JJM scheme aims to increase the water (55 litres per day) connections to 100 percent households during the next five years. Five to 10 percent of in-village infrastructure cost is mandatory on the part of the community. Also under the scheme, NGOs are participating to work as partners to support villages in planning, designing and implementing the scheme; creating institutions such as committees at state levels, district levels and panchayat levels; proposal for cost recovery from user groups by way of water tariff and user charges; etc.
While the scheme has many important features, there are many challenges before the policymakers and its implementers. This scheme is not only relating to engineering design and connecting the water pipes to individual household, but also effective smart water management.
First, at the macro-level, if a business-as-usual approach is maintained, by 2050, the available water demand may exceed the available water supply. So, there is a need to ensure demand-side management. Source sustainability measures such as rainwater harvesting have been envisaged under the scheme. However, these are not enough. Water-use efficiency in various sectors must be ensured. The goal of the National Water Mission to achieve 20 percent water-use efficiency and a time frame for reaching such a goal should form the basis of this exercise.
Second, the water sector is a complex one. Under the Constitution, water is a state subject and the Centre’s role is quite limited. The water managers in the state lack expertise of the modern day water management. Their expertise needs to be honed up. Mindsets need to be changed to new water management concepts. The entire state water machinery should be restructured and water personnel should be incentivised to adopt the new paradigms of change in water management.
Third, the digitisation opportunities of the new scheme should be thoroughly explored. Interestingly, the scheme proposes the use of Internet of Things for ascertaining availability and quality using censors. However, this is not comprehensive. For example, such technology should also be used for data analytics for demand and supply management and behaviour change, solutions to monitor grey water management and reuse, decision support system for scheme implementation and management, etc. A comprehensive digital water policy should be framed for its application in the water sector.
Fourth, under the proposed scheme, the concept of ‘grey water’ management has been touched upon at the village level. In rural areas, the reuse of waste water is negligible so far, and even in municipal areas, it is less than one percent. Thus, it will be highly challenging to implement this concept. A model waste water recycle and reuse policy should be formulated at the national level enabling the states to subsequently adopt the same.
Fifth, the scheme envisages water supply with potable quality. In the domestic sector, the groundwater use is to the extent of 85 percent of its total need and thus much of this water is contaminated today. A sizable rural household does not use treated water. Even in urban piped water supply there are reported contaminations due to the intermittent water supply system. There is a need to have a holistic plan for making available surface water and ground water to all population with potable quality.
Finally, in an era of climate change, water availability at the citizen’s doorstep is likely to be uncertain. Climate change-induced disaster (floods or droughts) and economic crises are looming large in India. Appropriate mitigation policies should be designed for smooth water availability at all times.
Implementing the proposed multi- dimensional scheme is a complex exercise. There are many challenges during the process. Upon meeting them, India would be able to achieve the SDGs in the water sector.SK Sarkar, former secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, is Distinguished Fellow TERI, New Delhi. Views are personal.