By Hemant Ojha

Water security in South Asia has been worsening due to climate change and rapid rate urbanization. There is also general rise in the demand for water as economies grow rapidly in the region. While South Asia is known for its strong community based water management and supply institutions, these local systems of water management are feeling the pressure of increasing demand and technical efficiency. In response, large scale government projects are being installed, while also encouraging partnership with the private sector. It is crucial to adopt such large scale solutions, but building on the capacity of local communities should be part of the larger effort to ensure sustainable water security in the region.

Extremes in climate change and urbanization key drivers of water insecurity

Water insecurity has become an everyday reality in India. There are a number of recent media reports highlighting groundwater being dried out leading to severe water scarcity. The government Think Tank called NITI Aayog has even warned of severe water crisis in almost all major Indian cities. Several factors are driving it, climate change being the leading one. South Asia is undergoing longer-term trends of warming along with Himalayas experiencing higher temperatures than the global average.

South Asia is also the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world with emerging small and medium sized towns driving demand. Until just before the advent of COVID-19, the region is also the fastest growing sub-region in the world, with an average annual growth of 7%, according to the Asian Development Bank.  This creates tension between those rapidly urbanizing communities and the neighboring agricultural areas; a fact that has been documented in various case studies.

Historically, water management in South Asia has been successful in cases of community based water delivery systems. However, these days those systems are experiencing stress due to the pressure to scale up both the quantity and quality of water.

Governance should be factored in when strengthening water security measures 

Despite water availability in towns and settlements, the capability at the local level to manage the water is limited, which is largely a governance issue. In countries like India and Nepal, there are too many institutions developed historically to take care of diverse aspects of water supply management. Lack of coordination and system-wide coherence is one of the critical governance challenges in this region.  Technological initiatives that have been implemented so far to meet the high demand go beyond the expertise of those operating it at a local level. The system ultimately caters to expanding urban areas, which require not only water for household use but also for large industrial complexes and infrastructures.

Most cities rely on water from upstream water shed areas. Cities tend to extract water from surrounding highlands which are areas that are put under protected land allowing them to store water in the catchment and draw water to supply to cities. While water management in the upstream areas is important, it is equally vital to improve governance of entire water supply system in both rural and urban areas.

To support local communities, governments and international support agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are attempting to scale up community institutions. This is done so that the water supply system can meet the needs of expanding urban communities. However, that may destabilize mechanisms that have been effective so far. Large scale initiatives should build on the existing capacity of local communities but also include new elements that can deliver larger quantity and better quality of water.

Stakeholder participation can catalyze governance

While high-tech solutions that are implemented may look good, there has to be an element of participation from stakeholders. Recently, we conducted a water forum in four cities, a discussion included researchers, local city level water managers, planners, policy makers, communities and various agencies involving water management. A public forum provided opportunity for different kind of stakeholders to identify problems by using evidence and analysis. This kind of reflective, interactive and research based discussion platforms are important especially in India where there are too many institutions in the water sector. The issue largely stems from confusion of roles and responsibilities within existing institutions. To tackle this, the institutional architecture needs to be changed.

Water management practices succeed with both local and higher level government intervention

Good practices are emerging in different parts of the world. They can be examined in different contexts; one is large cities like Delhi, followed by medium and smaller size cities and finally the rural areas. In bigger cities, the one challenge in large scale delivery of water, like in the case of Gurgaon, is that a lot of water recharging areas are being developed to cater to high-rise buildings. The challenge lies in creating a balance between managing water and simultaneously supporting urban development.

Our research team has formulated a concept called Critical Urban Water Zones to analyse the extent to which a city can be water secure in future. Cities that extract water from a small number of water supplying areas are under huge pressure from urban expansion. Those selected areas are cordoned off in order to be protected and managed. We are also developing water policy lab methodology to foster co-production of knowledge and rules in urban water governance.

In a small town like Mussoorie for example, they face a very different set of issues. Mussoorie depends on water that is drawn from lower level streams because there is not enough water in the geographic or gravitational catchment above the city. This has birthed on-going debate about whether a large scale project like pumping water from Yamuna River into Mussoorie is suitable for a smaller city. However, to meet needs for a smaller city, a disproportionately large scale project might be unsustainable. This can end up creating more vulnerability. Hence, the better solution for cities like Mussoorie is to manage those small streams/catchments to ensure they have enough infiltration and conservation of water.

In the city of Dhulikhel, Nepal there is a very interesting case of community based water management system operating for the last 35-40 years partly because of strong and well-organized community leadership. They have been able to secure water from sources that are 12km away from the city. Supply systems have to also be more effective by controlling leakages (i.e. non-revenue water).

Thus, while best practices are out there but what is needed is a combination of community-based systems and municipalities mixed with intervention from higher level government, wherein the respective government body could take appropriate role depending on the scale of the project.

A previous version of this was first published at Sustainability Outlook.