India’s water risks and lessons for the world

Water risk affects one-third of the world today, and the future poses even more daunting challenges for people and nature.

Look at any global map of water scarcity risk, and India leaps to the fore. Nowhere is this challenge more acute than here – a country that supports 18% of the world’s population with just 4% of the world’s freshwater resource. This summer, the world turned its attention to the unprecedented droughts India experienced – its worst in more than six decades. More than 500 million people were affected, and major cities like Chennai experienced ‘zero day’ scenarios, where water had literally finished.

Freshwater is a key focus area for The Nature Conservancy in India.

In October, I joined our India team for a field visit to see first-hand the work we’re doing to anticipate, mitigate or avert the water crisis in India. Joined by Michael Doane, the head of TNC’s global Food and Water team, we toured projects in Punjab and Maharashtra.

India’s water risks and lessons for the world

Community based drought resilience in Maharashtra

As a water expert who has spent my career on water security in the Western United States (another place that pops on water scarcity maps), my focus was on TNC’s drought resilience work in Maharashtra. Accompanied by TNC’s India freshwater team, I visited the Devnadi River Basin in the Nashik district, a region affected by drought every year. Under the guidance of our regional NGO partner, Yuva Mitra, we were able to tour large parts of the basin which was still lush from the late monsoonal rains. We observed the placid spring at the river’s headwaters, all the way to river’s spiritually-significant confluence with the Godavari River.

TNC is appropriately building its drought resilience strategy around the engagement of communities which is the cornerstone of drought resilience planning. Too often, scientists and policy makers develop tools, programmes and reports that sit on a shelf because they don’t meet the needs of the affected community. By working with the community across the entire watershed, TNC will be able to understand the needs and values of the people who are dependent on the basin and build local knowledge and custom into resilience planning. Along with partners Arid Communities and Technologies (ACT), TNC is training communities to understand their water supply and demand, thereby empowering village-level stewardship of water resources.

TNC is also collaborating with the Indian Government’s key institution, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), through the University of Wisconcin-based National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in the US, to translate India’s national drought indice into locally-relevant ‘early warning systems’ that support communities to anticipate drought and manage water use accordingly. Ultimately, TNC’s goal is to enable communities to proactively manage their water needs, by providing the best that global science and practice has to offer, so they can avoid the worst impacts of drought on food production, drinking water and critical ecosystems.

TNC-India’s partners – Yuva Mitra and ACT – explaining the water challenges in the Devnadi basin to Tom Iseman

TNC-India’s partners – Yuva Mitra and ACT – explaining the water challenges in the Devnadi basin to Thomas Iseman

Local Projects, Global Implications

While the landscapes, cultures and economies vary, several common elements recur when we look at water supply risk globally:

  • A fully-allocated resource: In most years, the available water supply is being fully used, and in many places we are depleting non-renewable groundwater.
  • Increasing risk: When shortages occur, the disruptions and losses are more severe in terms of economy, nutrition and ecosystem impacts.
  • Knowledge gap: In most cases, even resource managers (let alone the public) do not have reliable predictions of future climate or a good understanding of subsurface aquifer dynamics.

These factors combine to create a ‘slow-moving crisis’. Drought is particularly vexing, because you don’t always know when one is coming, how long it may last, or when it has passed. Even when communities and governments’ know they’re at risk, they don’t always have the capacity to anticipate future risk or the political will to change behaviors to make them more secure. This is a globally-recognised challenge, and the reason why the work on drought resilience in Maharashtra is so important. TNC-India has the opportunity to demonstrate a proactive approach that empowers a local community to get ahead of the coming crisis. In this way, TNC’s work in Maharashtra can be a model that can be replicated in other at-risk basins and communities around the world.

Lessons from an emerging Program

While the purpose of my trip was to support our water strategy, I was also inspired by the India team’s work to establish TNC’s presence in a new conservation geography. TNC has been a successful conservation organisation for over 60 years, but active planning towards projects in India started only four years ago. The India team is building the right partnerships, deeply attuned to the socio-economic-political context, and strategically mapping interventions that can lead them to the material conservation outcomes that contribute to India’s needs as well as our global conservation mission. I witnessed first-hand the strong and committed Advisory Board leadership and their deep involvement in the programme. While the conservation issues are urgent, the steady work of our team is laying the foundation for successful conservation outcomes over the long-haul, which is what it takes when dealing with resource issues.

THOMAS ISEMAN
Director, Water Scarcity and Markets
The Nature Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Programme

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