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Bridging knowledge-governance gap in water policy in India

Guwahati : Freshwater is among the natural resources which are crucial for human development and economy but is a finite and vulnerable resource. Therefore, with the growing pressure on freshwater resources due to population growth, urbanization, economic growth, etc., water stress and scarcity is rising and if the pressure is not alleviated, there will be a water crisis.

Persistent water scarcity is a reflection of a knowledge-governance gap. In South Asia, the solution to the issue of water scarcity has been driven by engineering-construction paradigm. Only recently there has been a transition from engineering-construction paradigm towards emphasis on strengthening the institutions. This paradigm shift is reflected in shift in policy focus from ‘water development’ to ‘water management’.

A knowledge-governance gap is the gap in integration of scientific knowledge into the governance system. To bridge the knowledge-governance gap, it is crucial to integrate latest scientific knowledge into the policies. Here, knowledge refers to not only natural sciences but also social sciences. Bringing in both natural and social sciences makes the knowledge pool holistic and is extremely important for enhancing the effectiveness of the governance system, particularly for sustainable management of natural resources.

Among the South Asian countries, India is an interesting case to understand the knowledge–governance gap in the context of water management through policies. This is because India’s water resources are more perilous than ever. While achieving higher economic growth and development, there are looming challenges for India’s water sector.

These challenges are vulnerability to climate change, high water use particularly of groundwater, high inefficiencies, water pollution, and fragmented institutional framework. As a result, India is facing water stress and some parts of India are approaching water scarcity.

In India, while there has been a paradigm shift from engineering-construction perspective towards strengthening of institutions, it remained largely centralized. For instance, water governance was through a national level water policy.

However, centralized water governance is a concern for a diverse country like India. This is because a uniform national level water policy would not adequately address state-specific concerns and challenges associated with water scarcity, as well as help in developing strategies to reduce water scarcity. Therefore, State Water Policy (SWP) is crucial for decentralized water governance and management.

Further, access to, use, and regulation of water comes under the jurisdiction of states according to the Constitution of India. Decentralization in water management in India largely came through the second National Water Policy (NWP, 2002) as it prescribed that states should formulate and implement SWPs within the next two years.

Taking the cue from this, several states implemented SWPs during 2002-2012 period based on the guidelines of the NWP. Among them are highly water scarce states like Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan; and moderately to highly water scarce states - Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh.

Interestingly, highly water scarce states - Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, moderately to highly water scarce Uttar Pradesh, and moderately water scarce Odisha are the pro-active states as they implemented SWP based on the guidelines of the first NWP (1987). However, very few states have revised their SWP periodically to integrate the latest knowledge. This reflects a gap in the knowledge created, which results into effective governance through well informed policy actions.

The knowledge-governance gap in water policy of India was examined through several key indicators. The three key indicators which are crucial for bridging the knowledge-governance gap in India are (1) holistic understanding of the water scarcity inducers; (2) assessment of water savings; and (3) stakeholder’s engagement.

Water scarcity is caused by several drivers, ranging from economic, social, and institutional to environmental. The first three, i.e., economic, social, and institutional are human induced, whereas environmental water scarcity is climate driven.

While human induced water scarcity is well recognized in the state water policies, climate driven water scarcity is not recognized even in the latest SWPs. Even though the scientific knowledge on climate change is evolving since 1990s, only Andhra Pradesh (2008) and Goa (2000) SWPs have integrated climate change as a driver of water scarcity.

Holistic understanding of water scarcity inducers also necessitates a look at the water allocation priorities to identify whether environmental water requirements are prioritized.

Meeting environmental water requirement is crucial for environmental wellbeing and replenishing water resources, hence is essential for environmental sustainability. From the review of water policies in India implemented at both the national and state level, it can be gauged that there has been a transformation from anthropocentric to eco-centric perspective, as environmental water requirements are prioritized.

But, the concern is that it features as the fourth priority after drinking, irrigation, and hydropower. This is because water allocation priorities are highly influenced by the socio-political agenda.

Among the states with water policies, Odisha and Jharkhand, which are both moderately water scarce states, are proactive to ensure environmental sustainability as they have prioritized water requirements of ecology as second to drinking water and, therefore, over that of irrigation. Acknowledging climate driven water scarcity and water allocation for environment is essential for bridging the knowledge-governance gap in highly water scarce states to prevent water crisis and conflicts.

The second key indicator of bridging the knowledge-governance gap is water savings. The latest NWP (2012) recognizes the significance of ‘water savings’.

Virtual water (VW) is an emerging research avenue to assess the quantum of water savings. VW is defined as the water embodied in goods and services. VW research aims to reveal the sustainability in water use for production of goods and services as well as the trade patterns. This is considered important because water is yet not considered as an indispensable factor of production despite the fact that it is essential for lives and livelihoods. VW research creates the knowledge on environmentally sustainable and unsustainable water flows.

Therefore, VW flows is considered as a policy option to inter-basin water transfers, which is also known as the National River Linking Project (NRLP). While NRLP prioritizes economy’s water requirements and alters the water flows to meet these requirements, VW flow aims to align economic processes with the water resources. Sustainable VW flows are flows of water-intensive goods and services to relatively water abundant region from the water scarce region and lead to water savings and security.

Unsustainable flows are the flow of water-intensive goods and services from relatively water scarce region to water abundant region, thereby leading to water losses. If unsustainable VW flows are not examined, it can delude and delay important reforms in governance of water resources. Unsustainable VW flows aggravate water scarcity, and therefore, is a concern not only for water security but also for food and livelihood security.

Stakeholders’ engagement is the third key indicator of bridging the knowledge-governance gap. This is because co-creation of scientific knowledge is crucial in order to formulate well informed policies. This necessitates stakeholder’s participation in water policy formulation as well as implementation for effective governance.

NWP (2012) is the first water policy formulated through a participatory approach as it was in public domain for discussion before being accepted as a NWP. However, in the SWPs, stakeholders’ engagement is largely restricted to implementation.

Policy formulation is considered to be the responsibility of the apex body. Inclusion of stakeholders in formulation of policies is crucial to bring in traditional knowledge to understand the multidimensional nature of water resources. Stakeholders’ engagement is an opportunity to build trust among various stakeholders to make governance effective and also to enhance water literacy among users. Enhancing water literacy on both natural and social sciences would equip water users with holistic knowledge on sustainable water use and management for effective governance of water resources.

In conclusion, bridging knowledge-governance gap is crucial for effective water policies in India. It is crucial to integrate natural as well as social sciences knowledge in policy discourse to make well-informed policy decision to tackle water scarcity issues. Decentralized water governance is crucial to tackle water scarcity through addressing state-specific concerns.

Therefore, stakeholders’ engagement at various governance scale is crucial not only in policy implementation but in policy making process too.

There are many highly water scarce states in India which are not governing water resources through state-specific water policies. These states need to co-create scientific knowledge through stakeholders’ engagement to formulate and implement water policies.

Lastly, findings of emerging policy-oriented research concepts, like virtual water for assessing water savings, need to be integrated in policy discourse for bridging the knowledge-governance gap. This will facilitate water scarcity mitigation to achieve water, food and livelihood security in India.

Suparana Katyaini is a research scholar at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Guwahati.

Dr Anamika Barua is Executive Director of SaciWATERs and has been working as an Associate Professor at IIT-Guwahati.

(Disclaimer: India Water Review does not take any responsibility for the views expressed in the article. The article published also does not in anyway reflect the opinion of India Water Review.)

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