Tamil Nadu sets an example in managing water

by Basudha Das, TERI | The Energy and Resources Institute
Monday, 1 December 2014 03:44 GMT

A Hindu devotee stands in the waters of river Ganges to offer prayers to Sun god at dawn in Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh January 12, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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From rebuilding water storage to improving water harvesting, the water-short state is making good choices

By making rainwater harvesting mandatory and effectively utilizing Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act funds, Tamil Nadu sets an example in good water resource management 

Good management of water and sanitation can be considered as the  building block for poverty reduction and a precondition for inclusive and  sustainable development. Billions across the world still do not have access to adequate and safe sanitation and water. Growing water scarcity and pollution are projected to further exacerbate the drinking water and sanitation crisis, seriously hampering economic growth and irreversibly degrading the environment. 

India is considered a water adequate country. But every year, large parts of the country, including those that receive abundant rainfall, experience severe water scarcity during the summer season. Though India has made improvements during the past decades in both availability and quality of municipal drinking water systems, the country’s growing population is hampering the civic planning process. 

In addition, rapid growth in urban areas has put additional burden on government infrastructure. The situation in rural areas is even worse. Groundwater continues to be perceived as an individual property, rather than a community resource. As a result, over-extraction and exploitation goes on unabated. Nearly a third of the country’s groundwater is under stress, and increasingly, large parts now coming under what is known as a ‘dark zone’, where groundwater has dipped to dangerously low levels. 

Tamil Nadu has been facing severe water scarcity in the past. Like other metros, Chennai drew its water from lakes, tanks and rivers, as well as from peri-urban areas. The rural areas, especially those not close to perennial rivers, have tried to meet their water needs by digging tube wells. 

As a result, groundwater levels have been falling dramatically. But the state has been successful in adopting a far-sighted policy of using the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act  (MGNREGA) funds to renovate and rebuild old water bodies across the state, which had got dry because of encroachment, siltation and growth needs. This has improved local water tables and increased water availability for domestic purposes, including drinking water. The renovation of water bodies has also improved the local ecology, bringing back birds and local fauna. 

“Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in the use of MGNREGA funds to improve water resources in rural areas. This is a model that should be replicated all over the country. Those who say that MGNREGA cannot produce assets of lasting value should look into these examples to improve the execution of programmes,”says Mr S. Vijay Kumar, Distinguished Fellow, Water Resources Policy & Management, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). 

For example in Chennai, rainwater harvesting was made compulsory in 2003, which prevented the water crises from spiraling out of control. With the help of the government and the municipal bodies, around 90 per cent households in Chennai have installed systems to reuse the rainwater. 

“Tamil Nadu is a successful example for the country in rainwater and rooftop water harvesting. Adhering to the directives of the Madras High Court, many industrial units in the State have been able to achieve zero liquid discharge (ZLD) to a large extent. However, there is an urgent need for similar effective legislations at the State level to regulate groundwater and surface water and provide an explicit and increasing role for Municipal and Panchayati Raj Bodies in planning, management and regulation. There is also an urgent need for techno-economic innovation to make desalination more affordable,” says Dr Girija Bharat, Fellow, Water Resources Policy and Management, TERI. 

At present, Tamil Nadu is facing challenges to ensure safe and sustainable drinking water supply and sanitation. However, a number of quality issues remain, including high concentration of Iron, Fluoride, Total dissolved Solids (TDS), Nitrate, Faecal Coliform bacteria, etc. Excessive extraction is also affecting groundwater quality. 

“Surface water is stressed due to pollution by industrial effluents and untreated domestic sewage. The identification of polluted water bodies would initiate the process of looking into source protection coupled with prevention of pollution. Systematic and concerted efforts are needed to ensure safe drinking water and sanitized environments that promote healthy living,” says Bharat of TERI. 

India is also facing the potent threat of climate change, which has complex implications on the availability of water resources, including changes in pattern and intensity of rainfall and glacial melt. Consequently, there is likelihood of intense floods, severe droughts in many parts of the country, salt water intrusion in coastal aquifers, and a number of water quality issues. 

“The increasing scarcity and deterioration of quality of water resources and their management have highlighted several concerns, which will need to be addressed through the National Water Policy 2012 and the State Water Policies there under, as well as by the Central and State legislations formulated in conformity with the policies,” adds Bharat.

TERI is organizing its second Regional Dialogue in Chennai which is on Sustainable Water and Sanitation in Tamil Nadu. The Dialogue Series is being organized in the run up to the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) to be held in February 2015.