Water security planning brooks no more delays

With the onset of summer, the usual problem of water scarcity has started haunting the people of Odisha yet again.

From the beginning of the summer season every year, despite the huge investments, the lapses in the service delivery system comes to the forefront due to severe water scarcity. And then, provisioning of water through tankers appears to be the only solution for immediate relief.

However, the fundamental question is that why the same problem persists, despite the creation of new drinking water sources across the state every year – even more than the requirement in comparison to the population growth. Besides, Odisha is in a better situation compared to many other states of India in terms of availability of groundwater, surface water, and precipitation.

The first manifestation of water scarcity is the non-functionality of drinking water sources. There are several habitations where we can find adequate drinking water with no contamination problem but most of the infrastructure is defunct due to the lack of proper operations and maintenance. Today, the responsibility of operations and maintenance of drinking water infrastructure lies with the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). However, in many cases, people and even the Panchayat are starkly unaware of carrying out these responsibilities.

To overcome this problem, around 15 years back, the State Government initiated an elaborate plan to appoint Self Employed Mechanics (SEMs) in every village, especially for hand pump maintenance. The SEMs appointment have improved the efficiency of machinery-related problems but plenty of other bottlenecks still hinder complete utilisation of the resources.

As a result, we see several instances where resources are not repaired expeditiously. The repair work often is delayed because of reasons like non-availability of spares, non-payment of dues and non-cooperation of the community and the Gram Panchayat. The pipe water supply projects carries its own set of different problems, which are more complex than management of hand pumps. The pipe water supply projects require three types of technical expertise that is mechanical expertise for pump set, electrical expertise for motor and electricity, and the civil expertise for pipeline and stand post. It is difficult to find a combination of the three expertise in the rural area.

Moreover, as the pipe water supply requires recurring expenditure like electricity bill, after a few months of operation, the system automatically closes due to non-payment of the bill. Due to the lack of proper institution and structural approach ignoring social dimensions, the system fails to deliver the desired output. In the absence of community ownership, the state machinery and Panchayats seem overburdened.

The second manifestation of water scarcity is the summer drawdown due to the depletion of groundwater. Depletion of groundwater has emerged as a major area of concern as no effort goes into recharging groundwater. Information gathering by the State on the current situation of drinking water provisioning is poor. The drinking water sector in Odisha depends on groundwater for more than 80 per cent of its supplies. But, in the recent years, groundwater table is on steep decline due to the poor level of recharge. The Central Ground Water Board has warned the State regarding the decline of more than two metres in the water table (over 10 years’ time) in 24 districts of the State. Despite this, groundwater recharge is yet to be mainstreamed. Another aspect affecting it further is that many sources do not meet the prescribed depth norms while installing a tubewell as most of them are installed during the latter part of the financial year i.e. post-monsoon, when groundwater table is high in comparison to pre-monsoon. This is creating a condition of seasonal defunct, despite each part of the tubewell remaining intact.

Summing up the problem and manifestations of the problem in terms of a water crisis, there is a lack of prudent management plan for both, drinking water sources as well as feeding into these sources. Instead of just focusing on increasing the number of sources every year, access to drinking water has to be brought to the fore of integrated planning that will help create a drinking water secured community, rather than just being a drinking water covered community.

Water security implies regular access to water resources that is of sufficient quantity, quality, reliability, resilience, and affordability for the purpose of drinking, washing, and cooking (domestic), small-scale livelihoods and ecosystem support.

Considering the competitive use of water within the community itself and issues pertaining to allocation of water to various sectors within the community, a comprehensive approach needs to be adopted to ensure the availability of drinking water for all. Despite keeping water for drinking and domestic purposes at the top of the priority list, an approach of looking at drinking water in isolation will actually not help. Considering the changing pattern of rainfall and the frequent occurrence of calamities like floods, drought, and over-extraction of groundwater to meet all sorts of requirements, the situation will only worsen further if water within the community will not be planned in a comprehensive manner.

Considering the shifted responsibility and devolution of power along with finance, Gram Panchayats need to be made accountable for planning and execution of water security. However, due steps need to be taken at the top level to ensure inter-departmental convergence and capacity building of Gram Panchayats in this regard.

Availability of water in the desired quantity and quality, at the right time and right place, has been the key to survival for all living forms. Hence, rather than fixing the problem of drinking water every year in a fire-fighting manner, intervention needs to be more holistic. And last but not the least, conservation of water and water harvesting has to be an integral part of water provisioning. Strategic steps need to be taken to educate the community in this regard along with judicious use of water. Or else, years will pass on, but the problem will always persist.

The article was originally published in ‘The Pioneer’ on April 12, 2017

Bikash Kumar Pati is Programme Coordinator at WaterAid India.

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