Water: Resource, history, management and challenges

Perhaps one of the single largest natural resource under threat is water. With an increasing population and a rapidly growing economy, the demand for water and its use is increasing. Under challenge is water security for life and livelihoods, ecology and ecosystems of rivers, lakes and other water bodies, groundwater, traditional livelihoods and oceans.

The history of water and sanitation in India is fascinating. From the Indus Valley
civilization, we have evidence of drainage systems, rainwater collection and
groundwater use. The history of dams probably dates to structures such as the Grand
Anicut on the Cauvery and the Bada Talab’ a manmade lake in Bhopal. Large scale
multi-purpose dams were seen as providing for food security through irrigation and the
generation of electricity by the nation. The contestations around dams have recently
become sharper and with the proposed interlinking of rivers project the debate is

Agriculture continues to put the largest demand on water yet most cultivable land in
India is rainfed. India also has the largest canal network for irrigation in the world, the
largest area under watershed development, the largest number of bore-wells and the
highest groundwater exploitation in the world.

Water as a human right is now been accepted in the UN conventions. The Indian Water
Policies, both at the National level and at the state level, are yet to articulate this. Also
unclear is how these rights will be rolled out in practice both for life and for livelihoods.
Conflicts are another dimension of water as a scarce ecological resource and the elite
capture of it at many levels. Conflicts arise famously between states but there are many
other typologies of conflicts which seem to be increasing rapidly.