Water Conservation

Water conservation and community responsiveness

By: Nirma Bora, The author is policy research and advocacy officer, WaterAid India.
In colonial India, water ownership became entrenched with the State, a practice that continued post-Independence. For ensuring sustainable and assured supply addressing the needs of communities, decentralised practices such as rainwater harvesting can be beneficial.
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As in many parts of the world, the South Asian civilisation flourished along the banks of major rivers.  Where rivers were not readily available, water became a unitary force that inspired people to build hundreds and thousands of reservoirs, big and small, to eke every drop possible. Back then, communities functioned as an institution with ownership of common resources including watersheds. Water management in ancient India, around 300 BC, was taken up by communities with good knowledge of rainfall regimes, soil varieties and irrigation techniques in the specific micro ecological context. The role of the state was to render support and promote water harvesting structures (Agarwal and Narain, 1997). Though built under the order of rulers and to increase state revenue, villagers contributed for the construction, maintenance and for the operation of tanks and wells as other common property resources (Bottrall, 1992). This structure changed during the colonial rule and later, redefining property relationships and shifting control patterns over natural resources—land, water, forest, and minerals, without any attention to conservation.

In the post-independence era, the colonial legacy of unlimited powers to the State became entrenched. An impressive increase was witnessed in irrigated areas by large surface systems under State management, while community-managed systems continued to decline (Naz et al, 2010). In 1994, the recommendations of the Hanumantha Rao Committee attempted to remedy this by suggesting a participatory and decentralised decision-making approach, along with access to funds. The Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) revised the 1994 Hanumantha Rao Committee guidelines in 2001 and yet again in 2003.  Consequently, the New Common Guideline of 2008 pushed for making communities accountable to the gram sabha in project activities. However, the primacy of the gram sabha, other Panchayati Raj Institutions or community groups in management of water has never received adequate attention and investment, alienating them from the natural resources that they consume and could conserve.  The State’s role too remains nominal with weak regulations with respect to groundwater extraction, rainwater harvesting and water quality standards. As a result, the consumption, by individuals, communities and businesses including agriculture and industry has grown significantly, leading to a worsening of fresh water availability and overall distribution.

Water supply has currently become the sole responsibility of the government. While millions of litres of rainwater fall on the ground every year, they flow away in the absence of an emphasis on decentralised water conservation systems. Role of communities were often defined as users, at best as managers of water supply systems. Of late, it is realised that community participation in water programmes needs to go beyond mobilisation of self-help labour or local groups for ratifying decisions made by project planners outside the community (Hutchings et al, 2017).

Water Conservation | The Case for Rainwater Harvesting

A close examination of the rainfall pattern in India suggests a huge potential to restore the hydrological imbalance and prevent water crisis by managing the supply side of water resources. According to one estimate, for an average rainfall of 1,000 mm, approximately 4 million litres of rainwater can be collected in a year from an acre of land— 4,046 m2 (CPCB, 2016). Tamil Nadu which already has 17 years of experience in rainwater harvesting, has found a substantive increase in water table in few districts of the state (Tamil Nadu Acts and Ordinances, 2003). Roadside rainwater harvesting and recharge borewells at various locations in and around the city of Coimbatore has led the groundwater level go up to 13.92 m (Madhavan K, 2013).

However, civic responsibility towards water harvesting is currently very low in most states across India. An engineer from the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) shared that only 96,000 of the 2 lakh-odd properties in the city have installed rainwater harvesting systems despite penalties for non-compliance being raised (Shekhar, 2018). India is currently using only 18 per cent of rainwater effectively while 48 per cent enters the river systems, most of which just flows into the oceans (Verma, 2017). No or minimal availability of non-carpeted areas in the urban areas, lack of systems and infrastructures in the growing
small and medium town spaces and lack of planned initiatives in the rural areas have added to this challenge.

India is not a freshwater poor country. It has an average rainfall of about 1,170 mm which corresponds to an annual precipitation of about 4,000 BCM (billion cubic metre), including snowfall (CWC, 2013). However, the total utilisable water availability in India is limited to 1,121 BCM per annum, comprising of 690 BCM of surface water and 431 BCM of replenishable ground water (ibid). When the per capita water availability is considered, a sharp decline is perceptible. From 1,816 cu m in 2001, the per capita water availability has dropped to 1,544 cu m in 2011, a loss of 15 per cent in a decade.

Quite clearly, the declining per capita availability of water is a consequence of heavy groundwater extraction and poor conservation of rainwater. All of these would suggest the need for urgent action.

Management of groundwater resources in the Indian context is highly complex as it deals with the interactions between human society and the physical environment.  Any strategy for scientific management of groundwater resources involves a combination of:

■ Supply side measures aimed at increasing conservation and recharge of groundwater; and,

■ Demand side measures aimed at controlling, protecting and conserving available resources.

The supply side approach aims at development of additional groundwater resources through suitable means and augmentation using measures such as artificial recharge and rainwater harvesting.  This can be achieved by not only investing in technology and training but also by promoting local practices of rainwater harvesting, management, and conservation (Jha and Sinha, 2009).  Apart from scientific development of available resources, groundwater resource management also requires focus on the judicious utilisation of resources for ensuring their long term sustainability. This refers to the demand side management for better groundwater governance by implementing smart regulations and legislations (ibid).

So far, 30 states and Union Territories (UTs) have made rainwater harvesting mandatory through laws, rules and regulations and by including provisions in building bye-laws. Four States/UT viz. Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Sikkim, and Odisha are yet to bring out legislation/ notifications mandating roof top rainwater harvesting (MoWD, RD, GR, 2015).

In June 2016, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), constituted under Section 3(3) of The Environment Protection Act, 1986, has issued directives to the chief secretaries of all states and the administrators of all UTs to take measures to promote or adopt artificial recharge through rainwater harvesting (Lok Sabha Secretariat, 2016).  A Groundwater Bill has also been circulated to all the states/UTs which, inter-alia, has provisions for rainwater harvesting to enable them to enact groundwater legislation for its regulation and management. So far, 15 states/UTs have adopted and implemented the ground water legislation on the lines of Model Bill (Ministry of Water Resources, 2016 ). The Centre launched a Master Plan in 2013 for artificial recharge of groundwater, specifying how different states should go about it. However, most of the states have not implemented it. The water resources ministry had recently informed a Parliamentary Committee that only six states—Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka have taken follow-up actions on the Master Plan (Mohan, 2017).

Further, the Ministry of Urban Development in its Draft Model Building Bye-laws (2015) has incorporated a chapter on rainwater harvesting. One of the provisions include that all buildings having a plot size of 100 sq m or more, while submitting the building plans for sanction, shall mandatorily include the complete proposal of rainwater harvesting (MoHUA, 2015). Water harvesting structures also constitute a special focus area for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Rao et al, 2013).

Evidently, the problem today is not of the absence of a favourable policy environment for rainwater harvesting. Our primary concern should be the absence of widespread adoption of this practice despite the existence of laws and policies to promote it.

Decentralised Community Based Action–The Way Forward

The experience of community based and civil society action suggests that a decentralised water management approach is effective not just to ensure the supply of safe water but in ensuring sustainability of water resources.

In an urban context, strong decentralised urban watershed systems have been recommended by Biome Solutions for reviving the existing lakes in the city of Bengaluru along with an integrated approach to water management, harnessing the benefits of rain, lakes, wells and treated wastewater. Further, ground-level experiences from non-profit acronymed ACWADAM, from the parched regions in Maharashtra indicate that a good understanding of the hydrological processes, application of participatory approaches to ground and surface water management, and a robust legislation that moves beyond the ‘command and control’ type can help in better management of the water resources. The idea behind it is that for a highly decentralised groundwater use system, centralised systems of command-and-control are unlikely to work. This also calls for, as shared by Gram Vikas, a better knowledge of ground and surface water bodies and demystification of the science of geohydrology for use at the community level to help build capacities of village communities to manage the demand for and use of water.

The key experiences drawn from the communities are as under:

  • The decentralised approach requires ensuring that appropriate skills and knowledge are available amongst communities to take appropriate action. A sustainable decentralised model that recognises the need for specific skills to facilitate water management and governance will also need to ensure that livelihoods of the providers are secure to provide uninterrupted services.
  • As participation is the core of the decentralised model, role clarity is critical to facilitating it. Determining what is to be done by whom becomes essential to make the model functional. The role of the governance system based on the principle of subsidiarity requires recognition of the primacy of community based institutions at an appropriate decentralised level. Also, opportunities for financing decentralised water governance exist in the MNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), NRDWP (National Rural Drinking Water Programme) and other state programmes on drinking water (Har Ghar Nal Yojna in Bihar), MP/MLA funds for local areas development and gram panchayat development plans funded by finance commission allocations. Corporate social responsibility funds also offer another potential avenue for integration with existing government resources.

Water conservation is the joint responsibility of both the state and its citizens and therefore the campaign around water conservation needs to be more proactive than a reactive one. Innovation in policies and practices and incentivising water conservation can go a long way in the tiding over the ‘water emergency’ being faced by the country.


Agarwal, Anil and Sunita Narain (eds). 1997. Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, Fourth Citizen Report on the State of India’s Environment. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Central Water Commission, 2013. Water and Related Statistics,  https://bit.ly/2uPe30G

Jha B.M. and Sinha S.K., 2009.  Towards Better Management of Ground Water Resources in India. Bhujal News Quarterly Journal.

Press Information Bureau, 2012. Leakage of Water, May 17.

ENVIS Centre on Control of Pollution Water, Air and Noise, 2016) Rain Water Harvesting in India: An Appraisal, Available at: https://bit.ly/2JCkytd

Hutchings P., Franceys R., Mekala S. and Smits S., 2017. Community Management of Rural Water Supply: Case Studies of Success from India. Earthscan Studies in Water Resource Management, Routledge.

Lok Sabha Secretariat, 2016. Bullet Points on Rainwater Harvesting. Reference Note  No. 34/LN/Ref/June/2016, Available at: https://bit.ly/2zZG0IW

Madhavan K., 2012. Rainwater harvesting structures help improve water table, The Hindu, March 23.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, 2015. Draft Model Building Bye-laws, Available at: https://bit.ly/2O3LkOz

Shekhar D., 2018. Rains are here but concrete surfaces block harvest efforts, The Economic Times, May 29

Varma S., 2017. India uses up more groundwater than US and Chima, May 23.

Saldanha A., 2016. Bengaluru Wastes Nearly 50% Water Supply From Cauvery, IndiaSpend, Septemeber 16.

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