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India’s New Ministry Aims to Stave Off Looming Water Crises

June 24, 2019, 4:31 AM

India has high hopes that its recently launched water ministry will help address a deepening water crisis in a more coordinated fashion, government officials said.

The new ministry, called Jal Shakti (water power), combines all existing water departments, ranging from those with jurisdiction over drinking water and sanitation to offices involved with river conservation, said Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the recently appointed minister. This includes the mammoth program for restoring the Ganges River.

These functions consolidated within the new department had previously been scattered across different ministries, Shekhawat said.

As an example, he said that irrigation, which accounts for about 70% of India’s water consumption, was previously handled by the Ministry of Water Resources, while urban water supply was taken care of by the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing.

Water Shortages

India is experiencing its worst water shortage in three decades, prompting some regions to restrict water for industrial users and causing outbreaks of violence as people fight over dwindling supplies.

Chennai, India’s sixth largest city and gateway to the Indian factories of Hyundai Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., received the lowest amount of rainfall in 15 years in 2018. Aside from the poor rainfall, critics have blamed the government for some of the problems.

“There is only reason: very, very poor management of rainwater resources,” said Jyoti Sharma, president of the Dehli-based water conservation nonprofit Force. “They have enough rain water, they have fair enough share of river water. There are some good rules in places as well, but enforcement has been poor.”

‘A Holistic Manner’

Better governance is key to stave off the risk of new water shortages, which may be exacerbated by a changing climate, acknowledged Shekhawat.

“An issue as critical as water should be dealt with in a holistic manner,” he said.

The first goal will be to provide drinking water to “each and every household in the next five years, and we are seriously thinking of simultaneously focusing on the disposal of gray and black water,” he said, referring to the reuse of residential wastewater. Gray water is generally the waste from showers, sinks, and appliances while black water consists of what’s flushed down the toilet.

The government also seeks behavioral change regarding the use of water and increased rainwater harvesting. Currently, only 6% of India’s water is used for drinking, while agriculture consumes roughly 70% of the country’s freshwater, according to the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, a government think tank that has stressed the need for better water efficiency.

‘In a Coordinated Fashion’

Creating a consolidated institution for all water-related issues is a better way to operate, said U.P. Singh, secretary of the Water Resources department. “It has to be inclusive.”

From now on, he said, “whenever we plan something new, we will do so in a coordinated fashion, otherwise you learn something in a given department and you repeat the same mistake in another.”

Funding for water projects and other programs also will be centralized instead of scattered among different ministries, Singh said.

Others are less certain about the efficiency of the new ministry.

“Water is predominantly a state subject, so industries and administrative departments are fragmented,” said Syamal Kumar Sarkar, director with the water division at the Energy & Resources Institute in Delhi. “Unless you also reorganize those fragmented institutions, [creating a new ministry] won’t be enough.”

‘Good for Business’

Hanumantha Chary, international director of the Indian Water Works Association, said a single water ministry will make it easier to share technical expertise, especially with ambitious programs such as the Ganges rejuvenation or the deployment of piped water in big cities.

“The new architecture will also lead to greater accountability, which comes with better time management and more transparent quality controls,” Chary added.

—With assistance from Ganesh Nagarajan (Bloomberg News).

To contact the reporter on this story: Lou Del Bello in Dehli at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com (Bloomberg Environment); Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com (Bloomberg Environment); Sam Nagarajan (Bloomberg News) at samnagarajan@bloomberg.net