Answer is blowin’ in the wind – Today, the situation is such that even the mighty Cauvery is not enough to slake the thirst of this city.

In all the crises that have overtaken the city, one that looms grey and large is the effect of excess ram. Overflowing lakes, tanks and drains have almost made us forget that other and worse crisis that often affects the city – water scarcity.
When rainfall is inadequate, the water supply dries up alarmingly. And then begins a whole parade of woes.
Apparently, the city can manage neither plenty nor scarcity.

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The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

For its entire 124 kilometres, this jewel of a river flows free. It is probably as old as the Western Ghats, older than the Himalayan range. Though not especially long, this west flowing river has a volume of water equal to the bigger Kali or Sharavathi rivers nearby. It originates in Shankara Honda in the town of Sirsi and meanders clean and clear through gorges, unique swamps, ancient forests and agricultural fields, till it flows to the Arabian Sea at Kumta, in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. Its forest floors are carpeted by bioluminescence, its estuary is rich with bivalves, crabs and mangroves harbouring dozens of varieties of fish.

Because of its gradient, it is the site of many spectacular waterfalls, like the Unchalli Falls, near which, on a full moon night in winter, you might even glimpse a moonbow – a rainbow generated from the moonlight. This is the river Aghanashini – ‘the cleanser of sins’.

This peninsular river is unique, because it is free flowing, unpolluted and retains its millennia old natural course. Most rivers in India are not free; they are dammed, or forced into channels. Others have just given up because their catchments have been destroyed; their drainage paths encroached upon. Most of our rivers do not even reach the sea anymore. Yet the hydrological cycle and the monsoon depends on rivers flowing to the ocean. A prevalent hydro schizophrenia refuses to acknowledge this reality, and we continue to build infrastructure along our rivers.

For the lakhs living along its banks, the Aghanashini has given people life and livelihoods. Even today, around 2 lakh households are directly dependent on the estuary, famed for its protein rich bivalve, crab and shrimp harvest. For the thousands of pilgrims that come to its many sacred spots, the river offers spiritual solace. For the growing number of tourists and researchers, the Aghanashini tract offers unique sights. Its sacred groves where trees have never been felled, its dense mangroves, its endangered lion-tailed macaque that came 5 million years ago, its tribal populations like the Halakkis that keep the Yakshagana art form alive; its appemidi wild mangoes that make the best pickles; its salt and pest resistant kagga rice – the list is endless.

Periodically, infrastructure is planned along this free flowing river of peninsular India. Once, industrial salt production was tried and abandoned. Then came a hydroelectric project, a thermal power plant, a port and a scheme to divert the river water for faraway towns.

People poured out in strong and sustained protests; people from every walk of life – ecologists, spiritual leaders, and fisher folk. The plans were shelved. The river ran free.
Now, a mega all weather port is once again imagined at its estuary, as part of Sagarmala. This port, which will expand the existing small Tadri port, will be built at an expense of about Rs 40,000 crore.

Karnataka already has 13 ports along its 300 km coastline, out of which one, Mangaluru, is a major port handling the bulk of shipments to and from the state. It is not clear on what basis the state expects Tadri port to be viable when nearby ports remain underutilised.

Just 25 km north is the Belekeri port, which was used to export iron ore and import coal before the industry collapsed. Just 25 km south is the Honnavar port, with a recorded maritime history going back centuries. Both these are well connected through the Konkan railway line and NH-17.

While it is unclear whether this port will ever be economically viable, environmental clearances have speeded up, with the usual contestations over what the reports left out in terms of the natural wealth of the region, and what would be lost through the creation of this port.

Meanwhile, the economic and future proofing opportunities created by the river and its catchments have not been properly documented. With its extreme natural beauty, just the potential of eco-tourism, if properly handled, could yield substantial revenue. The Western Ghats together with the sand and mangroves at the estuary are also effective carbon sinks. They provide untold ecosystem services in the region, including flood and erosion prevention.

If the port is built, it will require extensive dredging, as the current water depth is hardly two metres at the estuary. For ships to dock, it will have to be dredged up to almost 20 metres, releasing a vast amount of carbon rich soil and sand. Who will benefit? We often destroy ecology-based livelihoods in the name of employment creation. Who will be accountable when the marine production drops, as has been the experience at ports close by?

Economic discipline requires an ecological discipline as well. If we go ahead with each and every port designed for the Sagarmala project, we may create stranded assets and waste billions of dollars in underutilised infrastructure. Exactly the same result is visible in the Himalayas where dam after dam was built without making a holistic, scientific assessment of the total impact on the land and the economy.

In this great nation of saints and poets, public administrators and ingenious architects, has our national and local imagination shrunk so much that we cannot leave the last major free flowing river of peninsular India alone, for future generations to explore, enjoy and benefit from? Let the Aghanashini flow with Aviral, Nirmal Dhara.

Times of India



Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk, but water is in some parts of India today more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting. NIITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. Where do we stand? How can water sharing disputes like the Cauvery problem be really overcome? Where can we go from here? How can communities, technologies or business models solve the problem or not? How can corporate, policymakers, NGOs and individuals contribute constructively.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Mihir Shah at Knowledge Factory, 2019 held in Bangalore.

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk. But in some parts of India today, water is more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting, and NITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. So how do communities, policymakers, and corporates create constructive solutions to this problem?

The Relationship Between Rivers and Cities

When we talk about reforming policy or making a change which would actually impact people positively on the ground, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, which Dr. Shah, with his experience on the planning commission and his work in Samaj Pragati Sahayog, puts it succinctly. The first is to be in a position to reform government systems and processes, because we cannot solve problems like water without involving the government.

​​While drafting the Twelfth Five Year Plan for India’s water policy, Dr. Shah created a working group of experts from outside the government, despite resistance from the Prime Minister’s Office. He brought in experts like Tushar Shah and Sunita Narayan to influence policy which was focused on arriving at a common ground on water. Everyone was forced to put their fundamentalisms outside to arrive at this common ground and make compromises. However, they were able to sign off on a document that represented a paradigm shift in how water will be managed in this country.

This is one sort of model if we are to re-imagine the relationship of rivers and our urban settlements, where we create working groups, bringing together elements of the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. You cannot solve complex societal issues without reducing the friction to collaborate between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, and this example shows us the way forward. We know that the Bazaar has a lot of innovation, including technological innovations to offer the water sector and I think we’ve not deployed enough of those. From Samaaj side, sometimes there has been a resistance to using technologies but I think the time has come when we seriously need to look at many new technologies which need the Bazaar’s active involvement to put them out into the world, with policy support from the state.

With these working groups that were set up under the Planning Commission, there was a paradigm shift in water management governance as well. As Dr. Shah points out, we applaud higher rates of growth, but do not realize that these cannot be sustained unless we also take care of the larger ecosystem, the ecology that is sustaining this process of economic growth.

For example, if we look at the relationship between cities and rivers, there is an engineering cliché, that rivers which flow into the sea are a waste and they should be dammed to bring water to the cities around it. But if we remember the lessons on the hydrological cycle that we learnt at school, we would know that it doesn’t make any sense not to allow rivers to flow into the sea. Many of our rivers today are not reaching the sea and that’s going to have serious consequences on the hydrological cycle and the monsoon patterns over time. To say that we are wasting water when we let it go into the ocean is ignoring very basic science that we learnt in third grade.

Instead we are redirecting rivers to our cities, encroaching on the drainage lines which means encroaching on the channels through which these rivers are flowing themselves. If the water is not allowed to flow through its natural course, when heavy rainfall or climate change events arise, we then face problems of urban flooding. Life and livelihood on the subcontinent could be deeply threatened. So if we don’t understand ecology and how to sustain our rivers, then we are already dooming ourselves, and our cities.

A Problem of Imagination

The situation in Bangalore is particularly interesting because we bring water from the Kaveri at great expense and at a great energy cost. We actually pump up the water from a great distance, but so many of us in the city take the Kaveri for granted. We don’t think about who is being deprived of that water by this relocation, and instead we use it, pollute it, fail to treat it, and then we send it off, creating a lot of negative downstream impact because of that.

ATREE, an organization that I support, has been doing a lot of work on the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – two rivers that were tributaries of Kaveri, that were flowing through our city. Vrishabhavathi originates from the bull-temple itself, and the Dakshina Pinakini is not far from the city, originating in the Nandi Hills. There are a lot of people trying to understand how we can revive these rivers and drive back the Kaveri because Bangalore does have enough rain and lakes, and we would also have rivers if we are able to rejuvenate them. We really don’t need to bring Kaveri water to feed this thirsty city. But as of now, the Vrishabhavathi is nothing but a drain. The imagination of citizens with their rivers is destroyed, so we have no relationship with the idea of a river anymore. Nobody remembers a healthy flowing river in this city anymore, which is a real pity. But imagine if we could bring back these three rivers, the Dakshina Pinakini, the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – that would mean so much.

Some of the research that was conducted at ATREE showed that one of the reasons why the Arkavati is not flowing anymore is because there has been so much groundwater pumping in an unrestricted fashion, which is affecting the base flow of rivers. In India, we have an un-channelled groundwater regime, and so our river flows are getting seriously affected because people are sucking groundwater from anywhere, without any regulation. Usually, after the monsoon, these rivers gain water from the groundwater basin. However, since groundwater has been extracted, deeper and deeper, the water now flows from the river into the ground, which results in them losing water and eventually drying up.

As Dr. Shah notes, we need policy changes as well as a people’s movement to protect our water. This work cannot be achieved by the government alone, citizens also need to understand the management of groundwater. As of now, the government has initiated the Atal Bhujal Yojana as part of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, with six thousand crores (three given by the World Bank and three coming from India). However, along with cooperation from bureaucrats and hydrogeologists, we need the citizens, who are the primary stakeholders, to come together. The dissemination of this information to people who are actually using this groundwater will ensure that they use it sustainably. So it’s a complete relationship of interdependence between different forms of water and between nation and society. That interdependence has to be embodied in powerful partnerships for change. Without that, we will continue to make mistakes and the paradigm shift will not come.

So we need to focus on local solutions which are reviving lakes, roof-water harvesting, managing the groundwater more sustainably, and using waste water more creatively. Wastewater is another problem, as Dr. Shah mentions, because water quality is becoming a very serious issue in India. Unless we are able to recycle water and make it of the requisite quality, we are causing a great deal of ecological damage. Our cities only imagine treatment plants at the ends of its bounds, but actually they need to be throughout the city so that clean water is being returned to the storm water drains. We can see successful examples of this in Jakkur and small towns where, instead of making the same outmoded mistakes, we are able to bring in 21st century technologies to treat wastewater. So it’s a question of breaking down the pure engineering paradigm, understanding the power of decentralization, and keeping an interdisciplinary, ecology-based, landscape-oriented design.

We Need to Work Together

If we look at urban governance in India, we can see clearly that our current model of both our cities and rivers has not yet emerged . Even in a powerful place like Delhi, the Yamuna is nothing but a drain. It’s the most polluted stretch of river imaginable, which is surprising when you consider that there is no lack of money, and that our nation’s capital should be setting an example of how to look after our rivers. But unfortunately, we have not empowered our cities at all, in terms of how they are run, who elects the mayors, how long the mayors are empowered to do their job, or how they can raise financing to do intra-city projects. It’s these things that also allow citizens to be directly in contact with a responsive and accountable administration. I think Bangalore is also suffering for the same reasons, because we do not have the right governance institution for urban management.

Many countries in Europe show how a decentralized, accountable governance model actually has the capacity to raise capital for things like this. A lot of us take hope from the situation of the River Thames. In the ‘60s, it was a biologically dead river, but the city got its act together and today the River Thames in London is the cleanest river in Europe. There are 125 species of fish in it now, and we can see how rivers and biodiversity ecosystems are so inextricably linked. It’s a question of imagination as well. Can we imagine Bangalore with two rivers flowing, with clean, treated water feeding those rivers? I want to imagine our lakes being revived because we collectively did the work of reviving them. I think we should strive for that imagination.


When I went to Uttarakhand with Ravi Chopra of People Science Institute, we visited 16 river valleys, and it was heart-breaking to see how the dams were built back-to-back and to serve far away cities. Rivers that were so full of life became slowly choked as they reached Delhi. We need to realize that we cannot afford this. As Dr. Shah said, the economy rests on the base of the ecology and if we forget that connection, we’re not going to be able to have the sustainable growth that is necessary to lift the remaining 300 million people out of poverty in this country. We need to view water in a multi-disciplinary manner, in a cross-disciplinary manner and with multiple stakeholders all coming together, sitting across the table with mutual respect for each other.

So we need to create a citizen movement, to put pressure on our politicians. Without water, there is no life. Our urban economy suffers and we can already see that in parts of Bangalore where there is water scarcity. Some people think that the city will see mass relocation, if we are not able to manage our water properly, and we cannot afford to let that happen. We need to start thinking about re-engaging with our city’s water future, because that can make the difference between whether our cities are going to thrive or have to face a serious crisis.

Water Conflicts Workshop

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on Understanding and Resolving Water Conflicts, organised jointly by the Forum for Water Conflicts in India, TERI, and ATREE on October 5, 2016

One of the most important questions in the country and possibly around the world, is the management of conflicts around this key resource – water. My first disclaimer is that I am not an expert. 12 years ago, I set up a foundation called Arghyam through which I have been engaged with the water sector. I knew nothing about it before, I know something about it now, but every day I learn more. I have also been involved in a lot of civil society activities over the last 20 years and supported the work of amazing NGOs that do incredible work all around the country. My husband, Nandan Nilekani, has been in the corporate sector for the last 35 years, and that has given me a ringside seat to see how different fora in the world interact on issues like resource management and how the business community is responding to challenges.

So, today I bring you from a perspective from outside, trying to see upstream, non-water sector linkages to how they also impact the conflicts that you are going to be diving deep into, and perhaps to see if we can come at it from many different lenses.

Conflicts Are Opportunities

I think all of us can agree that conflicts are opportunities. Sustainable shifts of paradigm can happen, can emerge from deep conflicts. For example, World War II with its tens of millions of casualties and a deep realignment of world politics, did allow for one thing to happen, which is the engagement of women in the workforce. In the last eight decades, women have taken back more and more space in the world to improve their own economic opportunities. So, I always think of this as one positive example, though it came out of one of the worst conflicts in human history. Of course, this does not mean that we should create conflicts deliberately just to yield beneficial side effects. But we need to acknowledge that conflicts can yield a lot of information about resources, competition, mismanagement, power structures, and latent demand.

So, looking at these conflicts dispassionately with a partly academic, and very humane perspective can really be the first step towards reducing or preventing conflict. Analyzing them and devising taxonomy and typology becomes extremely useful in terms of creating a whole basket of approaches for resolving current conflicts and trying to prevent future ones. It’s useful in this sector to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal or BHAG, like one day there will be no more conflict around water. If we keep that as a faraway vision and then work systematically towards it, who knows what will happen one day. We have a long way to go though.

Over the past 12 years I’ve seen that sometimes those of us who engage in the water sector often come from a water mindset, and that could limit opportunities to look for solutions. I urge people working on these issues to sometimes step outside the sector and look upstream at linkages elsewhere that could help you with your own work. Broadly speaking, the two main reasons why there are conflicts are due to quality and quantity issues. We can immediately see how many externalities exist in the question of both quantity and quality. Agriculture, industry, culture, personal choices, and climate change are some of the many determinants of water conflicts. So, to prevent conflicts or reduce their negative impact in India, we need to start officially moving towards a low water economy.

In India, we have some history and tradition of being a low water society. Coming from a perspective of ecological and intergenerational justice, people have always thought of water as a valued resource that should not be wasted. ​​So in a sense, we have a lot of rich tradition of being a low water society. Can we then also become a low water economy? As our governments draw us into the narrative of a high growth economy to lift people out of poverty, can we simultaneously look at being a low growth water economy? Can we design systems and improve processes so that they use less water? How can we look across the supply chains of agriculture, industry, and urbanization? When we design the next 7,000 towns that need to be updated with public infrastructure, how can we rethink water infrastructure so that the towns reduce their water footprint? What would this require?This will require immense data collection, analysis, and dissemination, but in a very transparent manner, so that all stakeholders can monitor the progress. 

Farmers, corporations, and city managers need to have an idea of what their water footprint is, and then be able to set ambitious goals for reducing it. We must keep an eye out for all the amazing new technologies that make it possible to bring this data together from diverse sources, which may include crowd-sourcing, sourcing through research, sourcing through government data, primary data, or secondary data. There are many new technologies that have made it easier to do all of these things, and other technologies that enable us to create better visualizations of this data so that people can understand it easily.

Leveraging Technology

Recently I met Alejandro Iñárritu, an Oscar-winning director. He’s very concerned about the issue of migrants, refugees, and immigration around the world. So his next movie is going to be a partial documentary using virtual reality. When I asked him why he was doing that, he said, “When you can allow people to immerse themselves in the situation of a refugee on a boat coming from Syria, for example, then you help people to improve their empathy.” So, unless we begin to exercise our empathy muscle I can’t imagine reducing any kinds of conflict, including the water conflict. 

Technologies like virtual reality or augmented reality might be a way to create water consciousness in people by directly letting them experience things like the plight of people in the Bihar floods or the Cauvery basin situation. Imagine immersing yourself in Vidarbha or Marathwada or in Orissa where the Mahanadi issues are coming up. What will that mean in terms of moving dialogues and discourses forward? The water practitioner community has a role to play in feeding the creative imagination of people who are going to create such multimedia efforts. I don’t think we should knock this because it’s the way the world is moving, and we have to learn to move with them.

There is a game my son pointed me to called ‘Fate of the World’. It is meant for ordinary citizens to begin to address the extraordinarily complex problems we are facing today. For example, how on earth are we going to address climate change? Fate of the World allows you to actually immerse yourself in a global game, where you get to be a policy maker and figure out how to resolve things. What would you do about climate change? What policies would you think of? These are simple things that may trigger people to think more critically about their own choices. We have a sophisticated basket of technologies, at the back-end of these very serious gaming techniques. We have machine learning, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and as these emerge, all of us in the water sector have to keep an eye out to see how we can use these technologies to achieve our common societal goals.

Ways to Minimize Water Conflicts

People have started talking about the world already being at peak water. Unlike peak oil, peak water seems to be quite a contestable idea because water is on an annual renewable cycle. However, it’s important for us to think of it this way, because what it essentially means is that we are using up our fossil water. We are taking all our renewable water for human use and starving the ecological needs of the planet. When we talk about peak water, we’re really talking about reaching the physical, environmental, and economic limits on meeting human demands for water and the subsequent decline of availability. But as I mentioned earlier, conflicts are always opportunities.

What happens when you hit peak water? Look at what’s happening in oil or other commodity prices around the world as we reach peak levels of commodity use, availability, or economic viability. In some parts of the world, we seem to have already reached peak water demand. To quote Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute, the latest data (released in 2014) shows the continuation and acceleration of a stunning trend. US water withdrawals for all purposes are declining, not growing. The world’s largest economies, China and the US, are coming to grips with their water situation and rapidly innovating their way out of excess water use.

In five years, mark my words, you will see similar data coming out of China. They are working very aggressively to reduce their water footprint. India is at that cusp. Per capita consumption in some parts of the world is also going down, with more efficiencies built into taps, pumps, pipes, and shower heads. European cities are moving their norms of liter per capita per day (LPCD) downwards, from 135 to 100 LPCD. They did this because they have found that we don’t need more than 100 liters per person per day in an urban environment, due to all the efficiencies they’ve generated through reuse and making the cycles of water use smaller. So that’s interesting to us in India as we look at how we should develop our next 8,000 towns and cities. Can we take the 135 LPCD norm that we have today down to 100? Multiply that by the number of people, and you get significant water savings.

People’s eating choices are also making a difference. A recent study attempts to deepen the understanding of the impact of diets on resource use by analyzing the effects of changes in diet on consumptive water use at a country level and at a global level. It first analyzed the impact of modifying diets to fulfill the Dietary Guidelines by the WHO, and then the effect of shifting from animal-based food products like meat to more plant-based diets. In both analyses, the diet composition was kept as close as possible to the traditional and culturally acceptable food composition. The study found that by reducing animal product consumption, global green water use would be reduced by 21%. The effect on blue water use in food production would be about 14%. Now to think about this, the less meat people eat, and the more they care about local, organic, artisanal produce, what impact could it have on water futures?

India’s people and their changing food habits will impact global green water use quite significantly. And one way to minimize future water conflicts in India would definitely be to include a national information campaign. We need a national information campaign on both nutrition and embedded water, and its impact and reflection on how we produce food in this country. In agriculture around the world, people are trying to produce more crops per drop, and to respond to climate change-driven changes in rainfall, both in terms of location and quantity. Farmers in the US are relooking at dry land farming. They’ve had so much drought in the last few years that they are rethinking how to have rainfed agriculture, but with much more innovation through technology. If we start thinking like that, the whole scenario of water availability begins to change. They have understood that it is less about maximizing this year’s crop, and more about protecting the crops of future years because they can see the patterns now.

Sometimes I feel that we have not yet caught up in the technological race in India. That may be to our advantage because now, we can perhaps retain some of our water wisdom, while bringing in new technology so that we don’t go the wasteful way of the West. We have the capability to look at diverse perspectives and data sources to build out models for future water use in India. The key is for us to keep pushing for data to be democratically collected, kept on open platforms, and shared transparently. When you put relevant data, democratically gathered, in the hands of people and communities, they are much more likely to devise their own creative social protocols, restrained practices, right price signaling, and other incentives that are required to manage water more equitably and perhaps a little more sustainably. The work that Arghyam and its partners have done in Participatory Groundwater Management over the last six years has proven this to us.

The Third Age of Water

Industry is completely incentivised right now. It’s under extreme duress and needs to use less water throughout its production processes. Small factories in India probably suffer the most. Recently, a garment factory in Bellary had to quarter its production because there was simply no water. Similarly large companies like Mahindra and Mahindra had to shut down a plant in Maharashtra because they could not get water. Industry is very sensitive to the question of water, and most large corporations can’t get away with bad practices. They are responding and the government is also responding. In April, the Environment Minister, Javadekar, said that “India will aim to reduce industrial water usage by half in the next five years by using the latest technologies to reuse, recover, and recycle water.” These are things worth holding government to. We talk of surveyance and worry about surveyance, but there is such a thing as sousveillance, which means looking up from below. And that can create a very powerful push on the supply side to change behavior and be more publicly accountable. Never forget the power of sousveillance.

Meanwhile, bigger corporations around the world are signing on to a global campaign for water disclosure. This would mean disclosing how much water they are using, both in the factories, inside their fence, and throughout their supply chain. From beverage companies and info-tech to hospitality, automotive, and agro-companies, they are really trying to get more efficiency from their water. Often for economic reasons and because of public pressure, it’s getting harder for them to get the water they need, whether from the utilities, the ground, or the rain. Companies that achieve zero discharge, reduce their pollution, or improve their water efficiency are getting recognised around the world. This is one of the drivers for industry. There are many rogue sectors like energy and mining that are not caught up with this at all, but that gives us an opportunity to pressure them, when other sectors are leading the way.

Additionally, there’s an increasing sensitivity about wastewater reuse. The good news is that in India, we are so bad at it that the only way is up. After 20 years or so, we may actually have contained the global, and hopefully the Indian, demand for more fresh water. To me, that is a really positive way of looking at reducing or preventing conflict. Peter Gleick has said that, “the first stage of water was when human civilization had barely begun. Water was just something we took from the natural environment where we needed it. But as populations grew, as civilization expanded, and as cities developed, we outgrew our local water resources, and started to develop the second age of water. This was when science and technology began to play a role in helping us understand what we were doing to our water resources and how to access the water we needed in a much more concentrated, intense way. So we started to build dams, irrigation systems, water treatment plants, and massive distribution systems that characterize water use today. But the second age of water is also ending. We are moving into a time when the manipulations of the second age also are not enough. They have massive contamination, overdraft, and unsustainable use of water. We have contamination of water resources and water related diseases, and we need a new way of thinking about water.This is where the third age comes in. The third age is ultimately going to have to be a sustainable water management system. We will have to learn to live within our means. We will have to realize that ecosystems are a critical component of our water cycle — ​​that it’s not just humans alone. That it’s humans and the natural environment together. The third age ultimately is going to have to be a sustainable age.” 

It is absolutely critical to keep learning in order to solve the current conflicts that India is experiencing today. You will need to learn more about people, the environment, about sharing, power structures, cultures, and about the painstaking nitty-gritty of getting people to sit across in dialogue and hammer out solutions. We also need to keep our minds open to new ideas and to believe in the human capacity to innovate. If we take desalination as an example, most people’s hair stands on end because we’ve been trained to think of it as a horrible thing. It seems ecologically and financially unsound. But what if I stepped into the mind of a techno-optimist? What if we figured out a much cheaper, less energy embedded way to desalinate? What if we figured out what to do with the effluents and how to not impact the pH balance of the coastal areas? We have to keep our minds and hearts open, as we look into the future, as we look into the deeper and more politically complicated issues of issues like the Kaveri and Mahanadi basins, or even the conflicts around the local aquifer or local tap.

As we look at how to address water conflicts, we must be self aware, have a self-critique, and be open to different scenarios from different perspectives. Is it better to work with the politicians or is it better to work with the farmers? Is it better to go to industry or is it better to help people change their eating behavior? How will we, based on our priorities and our passion, focus our work so that we really get the best returns and we can reduce the human and the ecological damage from unnecessary water conflicts? 

Those of you who are working in this sector are going to be the most important people in this country, along with our many leaders – because water management, reducing conflict, thinking of future generations, thinking of our fragile ecosystem is going to be the most important work. You cannot have economic growth without doing that. You can not bring prosperity without doing that. You cannot have peace without doing that.

Invisible water, visible crisis

By now, everyone in India understands that we have a serious water crisis. Too many of our rivers are polluted, dammed, or dying. Rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic, and expected to become more so. Our groundwater is depleting fast. Our lakes are drying up or filling with sewage, especially in urban centres. Our water and sanitation infrastructure is old and creaking in many places and does not even exist in others. Agriculture, industry and urban settlements all compete for the same scarce resource. It is no longer a problem that can be discussed without remedy. Rich or poor, it affects us all, here and now.

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By now, everyone in India understands that we have a serious water crisis. Too many of our rivers are polluted, dammed, or dying. Rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic, and expected to become more so. Our groundwater is depleting fast. Our lakes are drying up or filling with sewage, especially in urban centres. Our water and sanitation infrastructure is old and creaking in many places and does not even exist in others. Agriculture, industry and urban settlements all compete for the same scarce resource. It is no longer a problem that can be discussed without remedy. Rich or poor, it affects us all, here and now. But if we had to choose one area for immediate attention, it would have to be groundwater. Groundwater is fuelling much of India’s growth in rural and urban areas. This has resulted in severe scarcity and quality issues, especially in these high growth areas (see map). India has always been a groundwater civilisation. For thousands of years, different regions had the most aesthetically designed, functional open wells that tapped into the shallow aquifers. People had thumb rules that allowed them to use the water sustainably across cycles of good monsoons and drought. The coming of the deep rigs and the borewells in the 1970s completely changed the way India used its groundwater reserves. The most significant indicator is that the share of groundwater for irrigation went up from a mere 1 per cent during 1960­61 to 60 per cent during 2006­07. India is now the largest user of groundwater in the world. We draw more groundwater than two giant economies­ USA and China. We have approximately 30 million wells, including the new borewells and the old open wells, drawing 250 cubic km of water. Groundwater now contributes to about 85 per cent of India’s drinking water security, 60 per cent of its agricultural requirements and 50 per cent of urban water needs.

The big irony is that despite this reality, much of India’s public investments have gone into surface water­ dams and canals for irrigation, huge pipelines for drinking water, and increasingly for diversion to industry ­especially to the energy sector. Essentially, groundwater extraction is a private enterprise in India. Most Indian wells and borewells are privately owned and operated. Overwhelmed by the arrival of a new technology that allowed rapid scale­up, the government’s response has been slow. There is little and haphazard regulation of groundwater. This is a rare phenomenon in the world. Many countries have delinked land ownership from the ownership of the water beneath, and have complex systems of water rights, pricing and tight regulation. Water is a state subject in India. Administration at the Centre as well as in the states has tried but failed to fully resolve the questions of who really owns the groundwater, how it should be mapped, extracted and replenished. So, through ignorance and with impunity, farmers, governments, industry and ordinary citizens have drilled deeper, and just about anywhere with frightening results. Sixty per cent of India’s districts have serious issues of either depletion or pollution, according to one study. Excoriating the earth has unleashed geogenic chemicals such as fluoride and arsenic into our drinking water. Since authentic quality testing is difficult in most places, we do not yet know what we are doing and what awaits us. According to a study by Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 66 million people are at risk from fluorosis and as many as 500 million from arsenic­ induced health issues in the Ganga­ Meghna ­Brahmaputra plain. At the same time, poor sanitary practices have led to faecal contamination. Millions defecate in the open, and millions of others unknowingly contaminate groundwater through leaching from toilet pits. A WaterAid report suggests this directly affects around 37 million Indians annually through water­borne diseases. If you like that sort of imagery, it evokes a manthan gone horribly wrong. It is imperative to look at what must be done, and done quickly. What are the top five things that the government, civil society organisations and citizens can do to make our groundwater civilisation more sustainable? Make the groundwater Mapping visible Right now, there is an asymmetry of information. We need to change that by putting aquifer data in the public domain. Make invisible groundwater visible to all, so that people can prevent abuse. The government has an aquifer ­mapping programme. But it needs strengthening and re­alignment.

It is a top­down approach. It need not be. People need granular data to be water­wise. Aquifers can be mapped within five years with smart, crowdsourced, ground­up information, in combination with technologies such as satellite data. Manage the demand It is linked to the first point, and reminds us that a supply ­side approach will not work. We need to use water more efficiently, and need better market signals for that. Groundwater in India is a private and under regulated market, and does not have the benefits that transparent, embedded markets can bring. There is also a deep nexus between groundwater and energy. If we will not price the water, we have to price the energy. Appropriate economic incentives must come sooner rather than later. There may be less resistance than the political class fears, and there are some good examples in the country already, such as the Jyotigram in Gujarat. Rationalise groundwater use This is linked to the points above. It is not good economics or good environmental stewardship to drain the aquifers of Punjab to grow rice, nor those of arid Kutch to grow sugarcane. These are no longer questions that economists can leisurely mull over. We have to incentivise the shift in production from water­ scarce to water­surplus aquifers, but in a sustainable way. Let’s shift public resources from surface water budgets if necessary to achieve a better water balance. Enable civil society participation It will be very difficult for the government to retrofit a sensible governance system on the current model of private, dispersed and democratised access to groundwater. NGOs do a better job of engaging people in a participatory approach, by encouraging stewardship rather than exploitation. Good public policy and laws help, but we truly need new behavioural responses that allow us to respect water. Recharge and reuse We need a massive national effort to recharge our aquifers. This requires the creation of appropriate institutions that allow us, as a society, to frame a new relationship with groundwater. Some institutional frameworks have been attempted, such as the Central Ground Water Board, with its mirrors in the states. But we need to repair and innovate these institutions. It is critical to set up new entities that help understand and manage urban groundwater better. As a society, we are now faced with tough choices. It is worth betting big on groundwater, which can actually lead us to water security. And we can become a mature groundwater civilisation. Again. ­

With Ayan Biswas and Arghyam ­