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What India Is Doing To Tackle Its Water Crisis

Per capita, water availability has fallen 75% since Independence. But it looks like the country has finally got its act together and several measures are now in place to conserve and rejuvenate our water bodies

The situation is dire. In the 75 years since Independence, the annual per capita availability of water has declined by 75% from 6,042 cubic meters in 1947 to 1,486 cubic meters in 2021. Not only are we staring at the depletion of groundwater and pollution of surface water, but also vanishing water bodies- ponds, lakes, tanks, wetlands -thanks to encroachment. Provisional data from the country's first census of water bodies show 18,691 of 9.45 lakh water bodies- or 2% - have been encroached. The number is likely to be much higher as figures from states like UP, Maharashtra, Karnataka, MP, and Rajasthan are still not in.
But the good news is people have woken up to the reality of this crisis, and there are now several projects aimed at rejuvenating rivers and recharging aquifers. "Water scarcity is a major inhibitor to growth. I think we all recognize this and that's why the Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA) was started in 2019 as a movement for water conservation, recharge, and rainwater harvesting in 256 water-stressed districts," said Debashree Mukherjee, additional secretary, and director, National Water Mission.
The JSA now covers all 740 districts in the country. States are implementing it, while the Centre provides the nudge. The states are also preparing an inventory of water bodies, which should make encroachment in the name of building infrastructure or setting up industries difficult.
Experts flagged many issues-from policy gaps legislative provisions that have been affecting overall water management in the country. Water being a state subject invariably leads to a political tug of war when it comes to water-sharing between states.
"The present policy environment in the water sector is very fragmented and facing 'hydro-schizophrenia'. There's no integration of surface and groundwater, drinking water and irrigation, and departmental coordination. The national water policy is very irrigation-centric," said Eshwer Kale, lead researcher at Pune-based Watershed Organisation Trust. Kale also felt that rainfed agriculture in the country has to be incentivized, given its high contribution to India's food and nutrition security.
Reports have flagged how the use of over 85% fresh water in agriculture has led to a crisis in several states, including Punjab, Haryana, and western UP, with excessive dependence on groundwater in cultivating water-guzzling crops such as paddy and sugarcane showing a huge policy gap in managing water resources.
Indiscriminate use of water for irrigation and absence of conservation efforts have leftover 10% of water bodies in rural areas redundant. According to the fifth minor irrigation census, conducted with the reference year 2013-14, there are 5,16,303 water bodies in rural areas which are being used for minor irrigation. 
Of these, 53,396 are not in use for various reasons such as non-availability of water, siltation, salinity, etc. With water bodies vanishing or becoming unusable, the Centre has decided to build 50,000 water bodies- Amrit Sarovar- across the country by August 15 next year to conserve water. Each Amrit Sarovar will have an approximate area of one acre with a holding capacity of 10,000 cubic meters.
The initiative, launched on April 24, aims to develop and rejuvenate 75 water bodies in each district as part of the 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' (75 years of Independence) celebrations. The project seeks to refocus various schemes, including MGNREGS and Watershed Development Component. Over 12,000 sites have so far been finalized for the creation of water bodies by states.
Meanwhile, the Centre has urged states to focus on enumeration, geo-tagging, and making an inventory of all existing water bodies on priority under the JSA so that encroachment can be prevented. "Those of us who have worked in urban districts know that water bodies disappear if we don't actually ensure they are part of the revenue records," said Mukherjee. She underlined the need to have an inventory of water bodies so that the country's water conservation program can continue in a more scientific manner.

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