Water has been seen as a natural resource that is essential for survival and freely accessible to all. However, recent developments precipitated by climate change and wasteful exploitation have led to a shrinking of available freshwater. Competition for this precious resource has intensified, and the problem is getting exacerbated each passing day.
In fact, water has even started to be traded on mercantile exchanges, and investors are putting a price as they see an opportunity and value in the “blue gold.” While water availability is a complex and contentious issue and not many countries in the world allow water rights to be traded in markets, the concept has emerged more as we move toward greater scarcity driven by climate change. This is an even greater threat to the economically weaker sections of society in countries like India.
The need to protect the most vulnerable people from risks driven by drought is urgent, and this unregulated trading of water has the potential to create speculations. In a doomsday scenario, the day is not hard to envision when farmers, investors, and municipalities compete on the price of water. Clearly, in India, where the disadvantaged rural communities depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the portents are alarming. These vulnerable communities face a major risk that threatens their livelihood and health as resources dry up, and little or no water is even left for personal consumption.
Adaptation and resilience are key to mitigation of this problem going forward, and the need to tackle this fast emerging emergency is urgent.
Urgent Need To Move To Resilience
A report penned by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that almost 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas experiencing very high and high levels of water stress. Another mind-boggling estimates is that almost 60 percent of irrigated cropland is highly water-stressed. The report observes that the annual amount of available freshwater resources per person has reduced by more than 20 percent in the last two decades.
Since water is crucial and linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) of zero hunger, the vision is in threat of being derailed. Climate change is already playing a major role in the water crisis by intensifying floods and prolonging droughts. Going forward, the worst impact of the climate crisis will be felt through water. Water management is a critical component to achieving the SDGs, and policymakers must look with urgency at areas that could make India’s water resilient. Unless action is taken, the impact will keep worsening.
To build resilience in a looming water crisis is multifold. Some broad parameters that will help in this direction:
1) Manage Increasing Demand And Improve Supply. Water scarcity can be helped through building large infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, and pipelines to store and increase the water supply. On the other hand, demand management could entail re-use of water, replenishment of water resources, and reducing water waste and its unproductive use.
2) Adopt New Technology. New technologies need to be encouraged and embraced in the field of water purification and reuse. For example, desalination and groundwater purification technologies have the potential to actually reverse the water scarcity and have long-term value in building resilience.
3) Promote Water Systems Decentralization. In a vast and diverse country as India, this is one of the most important areas that could have a positive impact. In water scarce areas, rainwater harvesting and storage can replenish groundwater through construction and restoration of infrastructure in rural areas. Revival of waterbodies and safe wastewater management can play a supportive role in building capacities of local communities.
4) Adopt Climate-Resilient Agriculture. Agriculture in India is the largest consumer of water and most of it is groundwater fed. By adopting agro-ecological approaches, farming can be made sustainable and resilient, provide proper yields, and maintain the ecosystem. If water consumption in this area can be managed through improved agro-practices, the cumulative effect on the water availability will have a positive impact. Steps such as farming diversification, intercropping, crop rotation, resilient seed varieties, etc., can help preserve water, reduce pollution of groundwater, and improve soil health.
Build Resilience Through Action
In the context of the unfolding water crisis, resilience refers to the ability of being able to recuperate from shocks and negative impacts such as droughts and severe storms. For the smallholder farming community, such shocks can lead to depletion of scarce resources. Working with rural communities, it is important to look at diversifying production and income streams. To deliver the benefits of diversification, farmers require proper weather data, selected inputs and training in improved agronomic practices, and assistance in crop selection. Looking at alternative income streams through income diversification will help increase resiliency.
S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) has been working since 1999 to improve the quality of life of the rural communities in India. As a sustainable rural development NGO in India, established as a public, charitable trust, Sehgal Foundation has a skilled and dedicated team that creates sustainable rural development programs in India to address the country’s most pressing needs. Sehgal Foundation has five main program areas: Water Management, Agriculture Development, Local Participation and Sustainability, Transform Lives one school at a time, and Outreach for Development.
Through its various programs, S M Sehgal Foundation, with financial assistance from its partners and donors, helps rural communities build capacities and achieve resilience through its flagship programs of Water Management and Agriculture Development.
Lakshiwas (Rajasthan) Pond Conserves Water
Lakshiwas is a village in Behror block of Alwar district in Rajasthan. Around 140 families live here, and most are farmers. This village is close to two small hills from where rainwater flowed into the village during the monsoon season. Not only was this water wasted, it flooded the nearby agricultural fields, spoiling the crops, and stagnated further on in the village streets, causing much inconvenience.
The CSR-supported development project implemented by S M Sehgal Foundation began its initiative in Lakshiwas in January 2019. In February 2019, the project team met with the gram panchayat and community members of Lakshiwas with a proposal to build a pond across the route of the water flowing from the hills in order to arrest it, so it would recharge the groundwater and prevent the other inconveniences. The people enthusiastically agreed as they were well aware of the depleting groundwater. The community contributed INR 42,210 for the future sustainability of the pond after the project team left the village.
The construction of the pond with earthen embankments began in March 2019, and was completed in April 2019. It has a water-holding capacity of 14 million liters.
The result: rainwater from the hills is collected in the pond and damage caused to the nearby crops has stopped. The runoff water has stopped being wasted as it is percolated into the ground, thereby enhancing the groundwater table. The two dry wells near the pond now have some water. Livestock, wild animals, and birds are also using the pond. With the advice of the project team, but on their own initiative, the progressive people of the village planted trees and grass around the pond to stabilize its banks from being damaged by erosion. The area has become a scenic spot for the villagers to relax. The village’s sarpanch, Suresh Bhedi, says, “The establishment of the pond by the project’s team in Lakshiwas is commendable indeed. It conserves water, which we all need to do. We thank the project team for this initiative to benefit us.”
Nature-based solutions, such as watershed management and restoring, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains, and restoring or creating rural wetlands, are critical to safeguarding the future of rural communities. In a large country like India, it is critical to enhance and maintain freshwater ecosystems and reduce water risks. With resource constraints, it is important for the private sector and development institutions to step forward to reduce water risks. The rural economy in India is a key engine of sustainable economic growth, and the time has come to build reliance through a collective effort that moves from a risk level to a resilient level.