Rural water sector is faced with a vast array of probloems and one of the most critical challenges pertains to securing an adequate source of water in terms of quantity and quality.
Natural resources, especially water, energy and forests, are shrinking at a rapid pace because of over-exploitation to meet the demands of growing population and keeping up the momentum of economic growth. Of these natural resources, water is very critical for the survival of human beings, animals and plants.
Broadly speaking, more than two billion people worldwide live in regions facing water scarcity and in India this is a particularly acute crisis. Millions of people in India, especially in rural areas, currently lack access to clean drinking water, and the situation is only getting worse. India's demand for water is growing at an alarming rate. A rapidly growing economy and a large agricultural sector stretch India's supply of water even thinner.
Meanwhile, India's supply of water is rapidly dwindling due primarily to mismanagement of water resources, although over-pumping and pollution are also significant contributors. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem by causing erratic and unpredictable weather, which could drastically diminish the supply of water coming from rainfall and glaciers. Currently over 30% of the rural population lack access to drinking water, and of the 35 states in India, only 7 have full availability of drinking water for rural inhabitants.
Rural water sector is faced with a vast array of probloems and one of the most critical challenges pertains to securing an adequate source of water in terms of quantity and quality. With burgeoning population the per capita water availability has declined from over 5,000 m3/year in early 1950s to below 1,700 m3/year currently. Besides, ground and surface drinking water sources are increasingly becoming contaminated with natural contaminants like fluoride, arsenic and salinity.
Our experience shows that there is lack of a holistic approach to water resources management with communities taking the lead in preparing their own water balance to ensure that they manage their available surface water, groundwater and rainwater resources and competing demands for drinking water, irrigation and industry.
Undoubtedly, the Planning Commission in its Mid-Term Appraisal of the 11th Plan progress and the 13th Finance Commission Report have recommended establishment of independent water resources regulatory bodies at state level and the 13th Finance Commission has earmarked a conditional grant of Rs. 5,000 Crores for this purpose. However, this measure alone is not sufficient unless it is pursued with diligence, tranparency and sincerity.
Another chalenge facing the rural water supply is that of water quality issues due to chemical contamination. Arsenic contamination is reported in 9 States, fluoride contamination in 18 States, salinity, both in inland and coastal areas of 17 States, iron contamination in 22 States and nitrate contamination is reported in 9 States. These contaminations are either natural or associated with over-exploitation of groundwater. On the other hand many more sources report bacteriological contamination, especially during rainy season and the main reason is unsanitary behavior of local population.
The issue of water quality has assumed serious proportions due to weak legislation and enforcement of water quality standards and testing protocols, enfeebled provider accountability with respect to quality of water provided and lack of awareness amongst rural people about the importance of safe water.
Another notable challenge lies in creating infrastructure, which focuses on providing, improving and sustaining high standards of drinking water supply services. Decentralization puts planning, implementation, operation and maintenance in the hands of the people; creates ownership and commitment to action. It has been the goal of successive rural water reform programmes in India since 1999. Undoubtedly, programmes like the Sector Reform Programme (1999-2002), Swajaldhara (2002-2008) and National Rural Drinking Water Programme (2009) have promoted a bottom up, "demand responsive" community-based approach, but concurrently our experience at India Water Foundation shows that local government and communities cannot succeed on their own and they need to be given clear-cut roles and responsibilities. It is recommended that while keeping service delivery supply-driven, equal emphasis should be stressed on infrastructure improvement and short periods with high levels of service.
It is worth mentioning her that Government of India has introduced many flagship development programmes like MNREGS, Watershed Development Programmes, BRGF, NRHM, ICDS, TSC, SSA and NRLM etc., to improve rural health and livelihoods and provide sustainable supply of drinking water. Our field experience in Meghalaya, Uttarakhand and Bundelkhand region demonstrates that involvement of multiple institutions gives rise to varying 'rules of the game', which culminate in replication of projects. Thus sectoral approach dominates the collective approach. In order to make fruits of these schemes reach all stakeholders, it is essential to envisage inter-sector coordination which could lead to convergence towards common objectives.
The rural water sector also suffers from a lack of continuous institutionalized support and a programme for strengthening professional capacity. Under the project mode of delivery mechanism, capacity building in rural water is usually directed at infrastructure planning and implementation, under the top-down-approach to identify 'shelves' of schemes and works for financing, based loosely on priorities for uncovered habitations and quality affected areas. However, when the local authorities and communities have had facilities handed over to them, they have mostly lacked the financial and technical skills to independently manage and operate their new sources and systems. In addition, they also lack the knowledge and experience to contract these skills.
On the basis of IWF's experience of rural water supply, it can be recommended that local government and communities should not be abandoned once project infrastructure has been built. They need continuous support including training, technical support, access to professional services and financing to supplement their own revenues.
It is heartening to note that the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation in its Strategic Plan for Rural Drinking Water for 2010-2020 has identified four Strategic Objectives to address the challenges in the sector and achieve its goals, namely: 1. Enable Drinking Water Security Planning and Implementation encompassing participatory integrated water resource management, water security planning and implementation at village, district and State levels, conjunctive use of surface water, groundwater and rainwater harvesting ; 2. Water Quality Management to ensure safe drinking water supply, which is based on ensuring water safety with verification by water quality testing; 3. Institutional, financial and regulatory frameworks and convergence of different development programmes to Strengthen Decentralised Governance; and 4. Training and technical support to build and incentivise Professional Capacity in the sector.
Implementation of these goals with dedication, sincerity, and transparency may contribute to improvement in rural water sector.
(Author is associated with Water Foundation of India)