Draft groundwater guidelines will lead to its destruction, not recharge

Central Ground Water Authority’s guidelines are unscientific. There are no provisions for conserving the use of groundwater, or for the recharge of groundwater

Photo by Mahendra Parikha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Mahendra Parikha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashlin Mathew

Groundwater is the invisible lifeline of the country – a supply that is often considered to exist in perpetuity. Over two-thirds of irrigation, 85% of rural water supply, over 55% of urban and over 60% of industrial water supply come from groundwater. But the rampant use of groundwater as is the norm now is not sustainable. Central Ground Water Authority, in an attempt to regulate the use, has released draft guidelines “for issuing no objection certificates (NOC) for groundwater withdrawal”. The ministry has called for comments on these guidelines within 60 days.

The draft guidelines state that clearances will not be given for extraction of ground water in critical and over-exploited areas. Moreover, the use of the groundwater for purposes other than drinking, such as fire-fighting and horticulture, shall not exceed 25% of the total extraction.

The government, hoping to reduce the stress on groundwater, has said the NOC for new wells will be granted only in cases where the required amount of water is not available from the public water system. In addition to this directive, the draft suggests that the use of fresh groundwater for swimming pools and other water-based recreations is not permitted in exploited and critical areas.

However, the experts believe that these guidelines are basic and won’t help in curbing the misuse of groundwater. “I think it is a bold, first step to address groundwater overexploitation. However, the guidelines are too broad-based to ensure equitable and just legislative reform that is based on logical application of good science. While aquifer mapping by CGWB is in progress, it remains to be seen how these guidelines will be applied in regions where aquifer mapping is incomplete,” says Himanshu Kulkarni of Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM).

The guidelines may seem promising at a glance, but it isn’t so, argues Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). “The guidelines are unscientific. There is no assessment as to how much water is available in each aquifer, how much is being used and how much is still available for giving permission. Secondly, even these figures are dynamic, they are based on recharge, but recharge is decreasing due to destruction of groundwater recharge systems. Thirdly, there is no credible assessment as to how much water is being used for agriculture and drinking water and how much will additional groundwater will be used in coming years from each hydrological unit, since for these purposes no permission is required,” points out Thakkar.

“Without all these assessments in each block, such blanket permission raj has no science and will lead to further destruction of groundwater lifeline of India, which is already in precarious situation in most areas,” alerts Thakkar.

The guidelines released by the board has no provision either for ensuring conservation in use of groundwater, nor for protection of or increase in recharge of groundwater. It is natural then that the groundwater recharge systems will be destroyed. “The district and state level entities that are being empowered to give NOCs have no capacity to understand the implications of giving NOCs, in fact this capacity seems to be lacking even in CGWA, that is why they have come out with such guidelines,” says Thakkar, knowing fully well that these guidelines are not the solution.

“The powers vested in various authorities and the basis of different categories are just too simplistic to ensure equity and efficiency in the system. The capacities of different state agencies on the subject of groundwater are far too variable to ensure effective application of the guidelines. Developing these capacities is precisely one of the suggestions made by the committee that submitted its report to MoWR on institutional reform in the water sector in India. Implementing the reform should be a first step before venturing into strong licensing and permits for groundwater abstraction,” notes Kulkarni.

The groundwater can only be regulated at a local, aquifer level, driven by the community and civil society groups and other groups including experts, media and judiciary. But, there is no provision for their role in the guidelines. “No lessons seem to have been learnt from the last 20 years of top down, centralised, governance of groundwater since 1997 though CGWA. In fact, CGWA has become an instrument of exploitation of groundwater and the new guidelines will only worsen that situation manifold. Decentralised, bottom up approach is required,” adds Thakkar.

“Whether we like or not, whether we want it or not, GW is going to remain our lifeline. We need to work had to sustain that water lifeline. But we are doing almost nothing for that. We are neither protecting existing groundwater recharge mechanisms, nor increasing the recharge, nor doing anything for regulation or demand side measurements. These guidelines will further destroy our GW lifeline, bringing the crisis much faster than it would have been without this,” warns Thakkar.

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Published: 22 Oct 2017, 10:09 AM