Millennium Post

Water: Changing face of Northeast

In the past couple of years, clean water has emerged as a prime concern to the international authorities around the world. In the face of extreme climatic adversities, population explosion, rising demand, global food crises, the WHO-UNICEF’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG: 1990-2015) placed issues of freshwater availability at the centre of every human developmental framework. Particular emphasis, in this regard, is positioned upon bolstering and diversifying Rural Water Supply Services (RWSS) globally, in order do away with rural-urban disparity, vying for a more homogenised public distribution system. Along similar lines, the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) was established in 2009 in India, under the aegis of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS), with the goal of providing rural households at the rate of 40 liters per capita per day (lpcd), deemed Full Coverage (FC). With growing demand, however, recently the norm was pumped up to 55 lpcd, as part of the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-‘17).

The RWSS of India is arguably the largest in the world and of course, a point of pride to entire the nation. In recent times, however, it is falling short of expectations, especially in the rural northeasten region (NER) of the country. Popularly known as the Water Tower of India, the Brahmaputra-Barak Valley, once blessed with water, currently is facing unprecedented challenges of sustainable supply in rural areas. During the 2015-‘16 period, about 49 per cent rural households in the NER had FC, leaving over half the population in despair. Considering Gujarat, Haryana, UP, MP, Chhattisgarh, with FC for over 90 per cent of households, the NER portrays a grim scenario. 

What’s more, the RWSS appears highly uneven in the NER, ranging between 75 per cent (Manipur) and 13 per cent (Meghalaya) household coverage at 40 lpcd. With the exception of Manipur and Assam (56 per cent households with FC), the rest of the NER ranks in the bottom quartile of the nation. Grossly, about 30 and 45 per cent rural households presently enjoy FC in the NER, underscoring a highly impoverished situation. Moreover, as per the new norm (55 lpcd), only about 13 per cent of the rural households in the NER were receiving it during the 2015-‘16 period. A system that boasts of achieving a nationwide coverage of about 70 lpcd in the near future, and professes even 100 lpcd for individual states should they deem fit in future, figures for NER appear none less than a pipedream.

Globally, the RWSS is going through a paradigm shift, moving from hand pump-/tube well-based potable water network to piped water system (PWS). The UN labels “piped water into dwelling” as the universal standard for the most improved potable water source. It is gratifying to learn that in a Strategic Planning 2011 -2022 (“Ensuring Drinking Water Security in Rural India”; MoDWS), the MoDWS promises PWS for at least 55 per cent of the rural households in India by 2017, while by 2022, the same for over 90 per cent households with less than 10 per cent to use public taps and/or hand pumps each. Also by this time, all the Panchayati Raj Institutions will be self-sufficient to bear costs of O&M of the RWSS. A novel and timely move indeed. But with the first milestone just around the corner, how realistic does the target appear for the NER? During the 2015-16 period, less than 4 per cent of rural households in the NER availed of the PWS with the highest in Arunachal Pradesh (3.23 per cent) and lowest in Meghalaya (0.6 per cent). Assam, the pivotal state of the NER, registered a dismal tally, covered for about 1.83 per cent rural households.

With annual rainfall nearly halved over the past three decades, the NER had never faced such challenges before. High elevation, mountainous topography and geologic structures never made groundwater the ideal water source in this region. But with extreme climatic aberrations, natural springs—the mainstay of water in these hill states—are now critically challenged. What presently reigns across the land of seven sisters now is nothing less than a drought. There are raging debates among the experts whether to label the present condition as ‘water scarcity’ or ‘water poverty’. But whatever the case may be, the truth is that even in the urban areas of NER, people are compelled to ‘buy’ water from the vendors these days as the public taps are frequently running dry and/or rendered dysfunctional due to sustained overexploitation. But is it natural or man-made? Is it climate change or excessive human intervention? Bulging population coupled with unplanned urbanisation, rapid deforestation, overexploitation of natural resources, topsoil erosion, the list is virtually unending. Added to these are the shortage of skilled labours for O&M of infrastructure, lack of pricing and cost recovery structures, lack of ownership, disregard for regulations….every fingertip has a red buzzer underneath.

Whether to label it physical shortage (water scarcity) or lack of accessibility (water poverty) is a matter of critical dispute among the experts. Either way, a number of socio-economic factors, as mentioned above, interweave to affect per capita water availability in the NER. In the process, political instability, religious turmoil, constant migrant influx, lack of education, provisions, infrastructure, unemployment all add up to aggravate the water situation. In that sense, special efforts will be needed, on behalf of the government as well as the civil societies and NGOs, in days ahead, to grow mass awareness against undesirable water wastage and impart apt IEC (Information-Education-Communication) to promote in situ water conservation measures and rejuvenate the surface water bodies, such as implementing more spring shed protection projects.

But with abundant rainfall in the past bringing profuse water supply, the NER never had to consider the need for water conservation measures before. Under the circumstances, it is hard for the people of these hill states to adopt such measures that require mass awareness, technical proficiency, and holistic citizens’ participation, even though the present situation direly calls for it. This is probably another reason why the recent ‘demand-driven’ community-based approach for RWSS, as opposed to previously supply-driven mode operated by the government alone, is yet to take on a substantive demeanour in the NER. There has been a perpetual lack in liaison between the authorities and the local communities to have the latter included them in basic planning, implementation, and management of their own RWSS.

Recent UN reports clearly state that depletion/degradation of natural resources, especially that of freshwater, is leading to appalling environmental migrations and in turn giving rise to resource-driven riots/wars and transboundary conflicts between adjacent geopolitical units. Is NER experiencing such events as well? In the wake of extreme climatic shifts, population explosion, and rising demand, the water crises in the NER needs to be prioritised with a willful collaboration between the government and the NGOs to promote sustainable human development.

(The writer is Assistant Professor & Assistant Director of Centre for Environment and Sustainable Human Development (CESH), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.

(Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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