Thursday, October 28, 2010

Change the flow of water policy.

Dear All,

In today's pick I am posting the following comment published in the Economic Times of 19th October as it is still relevant. 

Thanks and regards,

Ranjan Panda

Change the flow of water policy
19 OCT, 2010, 02.50AM IST,ET BUREAU
The government enunciated its first National Water Policy in 1987. A revised version was enunciated in 2002. Yet another revision is underway, for which view have been sought. Here are some bold suggestions. 

First, the new policy should be written for implementation. That cannot be said about water policies of 1987 and 2002. Both are litanies of platitudes, and have remained paper policies. Little of what these said has been implemented. A good policy statement should (i) be realistic, (ii) clearly specify what will be done differently from the past, and (iii) contain an implementation pathway. The earlier water policies had none of these. They are statements of vision, not policy. As South Africa did in the early 1990s, a shared vision should be set out in a white paper. But the policy should clearly state how business as usual will change. 

Second, water policy cannot speak just for the Union ministry of water resources. It must speak also for other strategic water sector players. For instance, it must include the concerns of electricity utilities that power irrigation pumps. After all, these pumps irrigate more land today than all government irrigation systems. Likewise, it must integrate mega-programmes such as MGNREGA that invest more in improving rural water security than large dams and canals. 

Third, water is a state subject. The central government’s water policy has little traction without buy-in from the states. To be realistic, the new water policy needs to focus on influencing state governments’ actions and policies through (i) central support to state water projects through programmes like Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programmes (AIBP) and JNNURM, (ii) the central government’s role in mediating water investments of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank , 
(iii) the environmental assessment and clearance regime, and (iv) the role the Centre can play in managing trans-boundary inter-state and international waters. The water policy also needs to expand its repertoire of instruments to influence state’s water policies. 

Fourth, policy needs to be realistic about the practicality of direct water demand-management instruments. Imposing groundwater cess and reshaping property rights regimes is easier said than done. The states have made several water laws but their enforcement has been impossible. Volumetric water pricing has been talked about; but implementation is a far cry. 

This is not surprising. India’s water economy is predominantly informal, with 90% users self-providing for their needs directly from aquifers, rivers and ponds. Experience worldwide suggests that it is easier to regulate large institutional users — corporates, municipalities, etc — than millions of small and dispersed users. Direct demand management will become effective when, over a 30-50 year period, this informal water economy morphs into a ‘water industry’. 

Fifth, integrated water resources management in our context implies factoring into our policy calculus the momentous implications of water infrastructure for land, power and carbon footprint. The British began building large irrigation systems when land went abegging and population pressure was low. Today, when land acquisition is a contested issue in the country’s development, we need to recognise that irrigation dams and canals are inefficient use of land, more so because they do their job so poorly. 

Take the case of Gujarat. Between 1961 and 2004, Gujarat government acquired 19.21 lakh hectares to create irrigation potential of 30.59 lakh hectares. In reality, Gujarat today has just 6.8 lakh hectares under canal irrigation, a fifth of the promised potential. The state has removed three hectares from productive uses to make one hectare more productive. Gujarat’s Sardar Sarovar Project irrigates less than 10% of its planned command because farmers are unwilling to part with the land for constructing distribution system. Clearly, the way forward is to license farmers, cooperatives and other irrigation service providers to invest in underground piped distribution systems that save land and provide pressurised irrigation-on-demand. 

Sixth, policy must also address growing energy intensity and carbon footprint of irrigation: Indian farmers use 75-85 billion kWh per year of electricity and some 3.5-4 billion litres of diesel in pumping groundwater. Deep tubewells in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Malwa, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh are great power guzzlers. Using surface water storage to reduce energy intensity of deep tubewell irrigation can be more beneficial than the irrigation value of that water. 

Seventh, groundwater depletion has increased carbon footprint of Indian irrigation. Groundwater irrigation accounts for 4-6% of the country’s carbon emissions. A decline of 1 m in groundwater level raises carbon emissions from pumping by 4-6%. Moreover, 1% increase in groundwater irrigated area raises emissions by 2.2%. Allocating a portion of reservoir storage to large managed aquifer recharge in deep groundwater areas can reduce power subsidies and generate carbon credits. 

Finally, we must address persistently-poor performance of irrigation systems before we throw more good money after bad in dams and canals. Since 1991, we have invested over Rs 1,50,000 crore in public irrigation with little rise in the area benefited. We need to shift focus from construction work, which is lucrative, to improving system management, which is hard work. The new water policy will make a quantum leap if it puts into place an effective performance management system for public water infrastructure. The first step, naturally, is establishing a real-time management information system as the foundation of a programme for reforming management of public water systems.

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