To incentivise water conservation initiatives, the idea of "water credit," similar to "carbon credit," could be introduced
India faces a challenge in balancing its population's water needs with the available freshwater resources. It contributes to 16% of the world's population while holding only 4% of the world's freshwater resources. Despite this, India is the world's largest user of groundwater, with an estimated annual consumption of more than 600Bn Cubic Meters.
Irrigation accounts for almost 87% of the total annual groundwater extraction and about 13% is used between domestic and industrial consumption. Rainfall is the primary source of replenishing groundwater resources, contributing to nearly 61% of the total annual groundwater recharge while, on average, the country receives about 119 cm.
Groundwater extraction has been on the rise for decades. The country's focus on achieving food security through the "Green Revolution" since the 1960s has led to an increase in water-intensive crops and borewell drilling, resulting in groundwater depletion. Over the last five decades, the number of borewells has grown from 1Mn to 20Mn, worsening the situation.
Rapid urbanization has led to land getting more developed and paved. It prevents percolation to the groundwater table, increasing urban flooding and surface runoff. Additionally, factors such as variable rainfall, deforestation, overexploitation, inadequate storage, and climate change have all contributed to the depletion of India's water resources.
The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) reported in 2019 that the groundwater level in 1,034 out of 6,584 monitoring wells across India has declined by more than 4 meters. Thus, becoming challenging to achieve the sustainable development goals of clean water and sanitation (SDG6) and sustainable cities and (SDG 11) communities. Government policies are promoting water conservation through a series of initiatives & regulatory measures. The CGWB has proposed the Master Plan for Artificial Recharge to Groundwater in India, which recommends the construction of 11Mn rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge structures to augment groundwater resources. Besides, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has announced the 'Jal Kranti Abhiyan, which aims at consolidating water conservation and management initiatives through a holistic and integrated approach involving all stakeholders.
The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) indicates that almost 17% of groundwater blocks are overexploited, while 5% are critical and 14% are semi-critical. Also, the World Bank had predicted a decade ago that if current trends continue, 60% of all India's aquifers will be in critical condition in 20 years. The latest report by the National Water Commission indicates that per capita groundwater availability has reduced by one-fourth in the last 70 years.
Thus, these are issues that need to be addressed. All sectors need to play a vital role, the largest area being irrigation for agriculture. According to a study, groundwater depletion in India could reduce food crops by up to 20 percent across the country. This calls for a comprehensive review of crops and irrigation methods. We must adopt water-efficient crops and water-prudent irrigation methods like drip irrigation. Building check dams and irrigation scheduling is the need of the hour to maximize the utilization of rainwater harvesting to reduce groundwater extraction. Conservation tillage, where some vegetation is left on the surface and organic farming requiring less water are possible methods to be promoted. We must adopt responsible consumption and reduce wastage in water processing for domestic consumption.
The industry should improve process efficiencies to reduce wastage. India is blessed with good rainfall and one of the largest initiatives that should be driven is rainwater harvesting. This should be mandated through policies for households and industries to construct Check Dams in rural areas. It is also essential to create a robust data system on the condition of groundwater across the country.
The government has introduced the concept of water conservation fees to regulate the overexploitation of groundwater for industrial use. The levy increases progressively from safe zones to critical zones. The National Green Tribunal has also stopped general permission for extracting groundwater by commercial entities without conducting an environmental impact assessment. However, while these are mainly penal measures for the industry, there is a scope for encouraging water conservation efforts. The concept of water credit, like carbon credit, could be established, wherein the credit could be given for replenishing more water than consumed. It may be allowed to be traded like carbon credits or used elsewhere for additional extraction by the same entity. The concept will bring greater awareness to water conservation for industries and individuals.
Unlike carbon emissions which are released into a common environment, the water conservation effort will replenish the water table at a specific geographical level. The concerns of how these credits should be valued differently basis the definition of semi-critical, critical & over-exploited areas need to be addressed. All stakeholders need to be involved in devising the measurements of the replenishment, trading mechanisms, value of benefits to be availed, etc.
In conclusion, India's water crisis is a significant challenge requiring immediate attention from all stakeholders. The government's efforts to promote water conservation through various initiatives and regulatory measures are commendable. However, a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving all sectors is necessary to ensure that India's water resources are managed sustainably. The concept of water credit could generate awareness about the need for water conservation and build greater accountability.
(The author is CEO, Bisleri International Pvt. Ltd)