Despite economic progress in India since the start of the twenty-first century, the rural-urban divide remains a stark reminder that the growth has not been equitable. One area that stands out in this stunted progress is the sanitation sector and water management in India. To put things in perspective, only about half of the urban population in India has access to a piped water supply as compared to over 90 percent in China. The situation in rural India has improved over the years but is still a weak indicator as only about 10 percent of rural households have access to piped water. The wastewater management situation is even worse with an absence of any kind of sewerage network across rural India. In addition, the wastewater generated is left untreated, which leads to its percolation back into the cycle, exacerbating the already-precarious situation.
Lack of access to safe water leads to a health burden that is borne by the rural masses in terms of higher price for water, risk of disease, and other associated issues. Even after more than seventy years of independence, millions of adults and children in the rural population are affected by waterborne diseases. This puts a significant burden in terms of loss of life and income on the already-struggling strata of society.
Water accessibility across rural India is beset by several major issues that need to be addressed such as:
1) Contamination (bacterial and chemical)
2) Exploitation of groundwater for agriculture and industrial use, leading to dried-up of aquifers
3) Climate change leading to erratic precipitation
4) Lack of planned irrigation and water supply
5) Rapid and unplanned urbanization
6) Overdependence on government
7) Comprehensive water policy nonexistent for surface or groundwater
8) Lack of ownership by communities
Technically, almost 95 percent of India’s rural population has access to water supply infrastructure through state investment and infrastructure. However, in reality most of the infrastructure is not in use. Sustainability and economics have to go hand in hand in a vast country such as India where resources and intent are limited. The populations have traditionally viewed water as a free resource, and in the absence of regular supply channels, people continue to exploit surface and groundwater. The growing population has led to a situation where the per capita availability of water has slipped below the threshold of 1,700 cubic meters (as defined by the United Nations).
The present water supply infrastructure is insufficient to provide safe water and address the growing demands of rural India. Source contamination due to climate and pollution has made the situation worse. While over the years, significant investments and efforts have been made by the government to provide safe water in the rural areas, challenges in the efficiency and operation of water have negated these efforts. Some interventions that are occupying centerstage in the fight against water crisis in rural India are:
- Water Augmentation Structures. With groundwater being the major source for irrigation and domestic use, overexploitation has led to a rapid depletion in groundwater levels. The need for groundwater augmentation has gathered, and artificial recharge of groundwater is the need of the hour, particularly in the rain-deficient northern and western parts of India. Artificial recharge is an effort to augment reservoirs and recharge tables through manmade civil structures, diverting the natural movement of water for recharge or storage.
Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) for Water Conservation and Management In Rural India
PPPs have been common in the urban utility sector, except in the area of water, which is still governed by the state in most cases. Rural India is an exception. With the limitations of the state and central governments in terms of reach and funding, the reliance has been on adoption of a collaborative model.
Some socioeconomic and cultural issues in rural areas continue to dominate the functioning of water management in India. Key issues such as asset ownership, performance monitoring, and regulation of water operators continue to dominate and pervade pure private participation. The introduction of public-private partnerships has brought with it a framework that provides the proverbial last-mile link between the vision and intent of the government, the technical expertise and funding of the private sector, and the missionary zeal of the nonprofit sector. With water management in India a state-level subject in India, PPP models in the water sector have been largely project-level initiatives, particularly in rural India. In this sense, the strategic long-term benefits are slow to accumulate for rural India.
Still, some path-breaking work is being carried out through this model where corporates, NGOs and governments tie together under CSR or voluntary models to take forward the vision of a safe water for all policy.
STORIES FROM THE WATER-DEFICIT REGIONS OF HARYANA
Recharge Ponds in District Mahendragarh
Rainwater harvesting is having a positive effect on lives in rural India. Narnaul in Mahendragarh, Haryana, is well-known for its farming and developed agriculture. The inhabitants of this region are highly dependent on its farm produce. The groundwater was depleting rapidly and was affecting the livelihood of its residents. S M Sehgal Foundation joined hands with HDFC Bank to construct johads, redundant ponds in the Sarelli and Panchnota villages. This project aimed at bringing about positive change by increasing the water table in the region with Parivartan Prayojana.
The locals said they used to have to wait long hours for water tankers. The cattle went thirsty, causing a reduction in milk output. After the johad was constructed, two to three hours of heavy rainfall was sufficient to have the pond overflowing and last the villagers an entire year. More water in the pond resulted in ground seepage, recharging the water table, and led to the increased level of groundwater. The depth and diameter had been increased to collect as much water as possible so it could last for a longer duration after the evaporation process. Even the wells in the adjacent villages appeared fuller and could feed more people than earlier. The spinoff effect was undeniable. After construction of the pond, the locals felt more aware and confident regarding water conservation and management in India.
NUH: Making Groundwater Potable
Nuh district in Haryana is a semi-arid region and has few surface water resources. Groundwater is the primary source of water for domestic and agricultural purposes. However, as the groundwater is highly saline and of poor quality, it is unfit for human consumption. Most villagers suffer as a result of lack of availability of potable water. Owners of sweet water bore wells indulge in water trade. Since the cost of boring a well is high, villagers are compelled to purchase water from commercial water tankers. However, those with limited resources are forced to fetch water from distant sources to meet their needs. These sources of water are either government tube wells, ponds, or hand pumps.
With the support of the Millennium Alliance (MA), S M Sehgal Foundation has installed high-pressure recharge wells in four schools in the water-scarce villages in Nagina block, during 2015–16. The aim is to create freshwater pockets in saline aquifers to make water available for drinking purposes in the school. Apart from high-pressure recharge wells, the project includes awareness generation among the community about the usage and applicability of high-pressure recharge wells so that the community will adopt the model at their household and community level, which will help mitigate scarcity and salinity, and promote water conservation and management in India.
The Way Forward
The PPPs depend on regulatory, financial, and institutional underpinnings required to support private sector participation in water management in India. However, given the geographical and socio-cultural complexities of rural India, the time has come to look at a tweaked PPP model—one that looks at a human-centric approach. The road ahead in the war to achieve water conservation and management in India is long and arduous. To depend on reliable partners in this journey is the way forward.