Water is a natural resource, fundamental to life, livelihood, food security and sustainable development. It is also a scarce resource. India has more than 17 percent of the world’s population, but has only 4% of world’s renewable water resources with 2.6% of world’s land area. There are further limits on utilizable quantities of water owing to uneven distribution over time and space. Precipitation is confined to only about three or four months in a year and varies from 100 mm in the western parts of Rajasthan to over 10000 mm at Cherrapunji in Meghalaya. Rivers and underground aquifers often cut across state boundaries. Water, as a resource is one and indivisible: rainfall, river waters, surface ponds and lakes and ground water are all part of one system.
In addition, there are challenges of frequent floods and droughts in one or the other part of the country. With a growing population and rising needs of a fast developing nation as well as the given indications of the impact of climate change, availability of utilizable water will be under further strains in future with the possibility of deepening water conflicts among different user groups. Low public consciousness about the overall scarcity and economic value of water results in its wastage and inefficient use. In addition, there are inequitious distribution and lack of a unified perspective in planning, management and use of water resources.
The objective of the National Water Policy is to take cognizance of the existing situation and to propose a framework for creation of an overarching system of laws and institutions and for a plan of action with a unified national perspective.
National Water Policy was adopted in September, 1987. Since then, a number of issues and challenges have emerged in the development and management of the water resources. Therefore, the National Water Policy (1987) has been reviewed and updated in 2012.
The salient features of new National Water Policy (2012) are:
a) Constitutionally the States have the right to frame suitable policies, laws and regulations on water, the draft NWP, 2012 lays emphasis on the need for a national water framework law, comprehensive legislation for optimum development of inter-State rivers and river valleys, public trust doctrine, amendment of the Indian Easements Act, 1882, etc.
b) The draft NWP, 2012 presents a holistic picture of ecological need of the river rather than restricting it to only minimum flow requirement. It states that the ecological needs of the river should be determined recognizing that river flows are characterized by low or no flows, small floods (freshets), large floods and flow variability and should accommodate development needs. A portion of river flows should be kept aside to meet ecological needs ensuring that the proportional low and high flow releases correspond in time closely to the natural flow regime.
c) It recognizes the need to adapt to climate change scenario in planning and implementation of water resources projects. Coping strategies for designing and management of water resources structures and review of acceptability criteria has been emphasized.
d) Need and approaches towards enhancing water availability have been stipulated. Direct use of rainfall and avoidance of inadvertent evapo-transpiration have been proposed as the new additional strategies for augmenting utilizable water resources.
e) Draft proposes the mapping of the aquifers to know the quantum and quality of ground water resources in the country has been proposed with provision of periodic updation.
f) A system to evolve benchmarks for water uses for different purposes, i.e., water footprints, and water auditing should be developed to ensure efficient use of water.
g) Water Users Associations should be given statutory powers to collect and retain a portion of water charges, manage the volumetric quantum of water allotted to them and maintain the distribution system in their jurisdiction.
h) All water resources projects, including hydro power projects, should be planned to the extent feasible as multi-purpose projects with provision of storage to derive maximum benefit from available topology and water resources.
i) The draft NWP, 2012 lays emphasis on preparedness for flood / drought with coping up mechanisms as an option. Frequency based flood inundation maps should be prepared to evolve coping strategies.
j) Appropriate institutional arrangements for each river basin should be developed to collect and collate all data on regular basis with regard to rainfall, river flows, area irrigated by crops and by source, utilizations for various uses by both surface and ground water and to publish water accounts on ten daily basis every year for each river basin with appropriate water budgets and water accounts based on the hydrologic balances.
Planning and implementation of water resources projects involve a number of socio-economic aspects and issues such as environmental sustainability, appropriate resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people and livestock, public health concerns of water impoundment, dam safety etc.