Making rural India water smart

Water smart attitudes to manage water demand in rural India (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Water smart attitudes to manage water demand in rural India (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Poor management of water and  over dependence on groundwater is making India a water stressed country, which can spell doom for agricultural productivity. How India manages and governs water will be important in the future. Adopting water smart attitudes and behaviours by rural communities is crucial. How can that be achieved? This book shows the way.


Crispino Lobo, Managing Trustee and Co-founder, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), and the lead author of the book titled ‘The Water Governance Standard: Making Water Everybody’s Business’ speaks to the India Water Portal about the idea behind the Water Governance Standard toolkit and the way forward. 

What do you think are the important challenges that India is facing in the context of water resources? Where do you think do the current and past approaches fall short to solve the water crisis in the country?

India is a water abundant country and though we get a huge amount of water from the rains, how much of it is available for use is an issue since a good amount of it falls in areas where we cannot easily access it and most of the water runs away into the sea. While estimates are available, we cannot really say with a high level of confidence as to how much water is available for us to use. 

And the need for water is growing with increasing population, economy, and rising expectations, whereas availability is not increasing. India is a highly groundwater dependent economy. While the monsoon takes care of our water needs over four months, we depend on the water that goes through basal flows and is available through rivers, and mostly groundwater for the rest of the year. 

Groundwater meets both the irrigation and drinking water needs of the country and withdrawal levels in India exceed that of the US and China combined together. However, it is also a finite resource and no matter how much rainfall we have, the amount of water that recharges aquifers is limited and depends on factors such as geology, geography, location, slope of the area, etc. 

In many parts of India, the rate of extraction of groundwater exceeds recharge and infiltration rates. A recent report of the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB, 2021) states that about two-thirds of the total volume of extractable groundwater in India is already being pumped out. 

The per capita water availability during independence was 5,000 plus cubic metres per year and today it has gone down to 1,545 cubic metres per year. We are already in the water stressed category, and it is projected that by 2025 and 2050, per capita  water availability per annum will further decline to 1,341 cubic metres and 1,140  cubic meters, respectively. We have a challenge ahead of us.

Why the need to move from water resources development to governance? What does the new approach imply?

So far, our emphasis has been on water supply augmentation, but not on how we are using it. No matter how much water we harvest, demand will always outpace availability if water is not managed well. There is an urgent need to rebalance our priorities. 

Augmentation of resources is also important to take care of the needs of the growing population and we must harvest as much water as we possibly can to meet demands, but it has to be sustainable. And we can’t only think of human needs, we also need to factor in nature. If ecosystems and nature collapse, then survival of humans is also not possible. Thus, how we manage, use and govern water is important. 

The best way to implement actions like sustainable use of water is to make the idea acceptable to people, but without using force. When people are able to understand the reasons behind using water with care, and understand the consequences of squandering water, they can find means to solve the issue by changing their behaviour and practices.

Once they buy into the narrative that prioritises efficient, equitable and sustainable use of water, then legislation will work. This involves a cultural change starting from home, family, community and then society. We need awareness, incentivisation and of course, penalties for breaches. However, community participation and buy-in is the key to implement any legislation consistently, impartially, fairly and equitably. 

We suggest another way of looking at this. Can we use market dynamics or principles to incentivise behaviour change in the community? In rural India, water is a growing concern with agriculture consuming 83 percent of fresh water and between 60 to 70 percent of it dependent on the rains, which are becoming more unpredictable than in the past.

And India is going to remain an agricultural country for a long time to come and this is where a large amount of water will be needed and consumed. There will be a growing need for water related infrastructure in rural areas and we will need financial resources for that. This increasing demand will be greater than our capacity to provide the required financial resources, in the current context. 

Not that we do not have the financial resources, but it is a question of attracting those resources, and money goes to where it gets returns. So even where the government is an investor, it needs to ensure that the public money it has invested has been put to proper use and has benefitted the community. Every investor needs to know of the risks and returns of an envisaged investment.

Is there a way to calculate this for water related infrastructure that involves social returns for rural communities? If we can develop a “water score” that determines the risk and returns from investments made, it will help uncover the “water investment attractiveness” (or riskiness) of a community and drive investments to the water sector. So higher the score, more “investment worthy” will the community be.

What is the Water Governance Standard? What are its objectives? Who are the target groups who can benefit? How? In what contexts can the water governance standard be useful? 

WOTR has developed the Water Governance Standard (WGS), a rating and certification methodology (or toolkit) that seeks to incentivise and nudge communities, on the one hand, towards adopting water-smart attitudes and behaviours in order to get access to water investments and benefits, and on the other, funding agencies to provide the required financial and technical resources taking into consideration the risks, benefits and remediation measures. 

The WGS evaluates how effectively rural communities manage and govern their available water resources, assigns a “water score” and rates them at four levels: Bronze at the entry level, followed by Silver, then Gold, and finally Platinum, which is the highest rank. The goal of the WGS is to catalyse competitive dynamics in rural communities to uncover water investment opportunities that can deliver sustained benefits to communities and investors, alike. 

The main objective of the WGS is to incentivise changes in the way we deal with and use water, at the behavioural and institutional levels. Specific objectives are to: 

  • Participatorily assess the quality of water management in a community against a defined benchmark – the Water Governance Standard. 
  • Raise awareness and provide a pathway for communities to improve the overall quality of water management. 
  • Provide water stakeholders, investors and resource providers a basis to identify opportunities and projects that are likely to be “successful” and deliver expected outcomes.
  • Provide a comprehensive framework to monitor, improve and evaluate water projects in terms of performance and impact.

The WGS can be useful to: 

  •  Communities where agriculture is rainfed and irrigation depends on access to groundwater, mainly drylands which include arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas.
  • Communities dependent on rainfall and groundwater, but having limited access to water from external sources 
  • In water abundant areas that are substantially or perennially irrigated or have access to a reliable source of irrigation, such as dams and canals, but experience water stress. 

Intended users of the WGS are rural communities and investors such as government agencies, private and social investors, donors, philanthropies, social impact funds, development practitioners, researchers and evaluators.

The never ending demand for water in rural India (Image Source: WOTR)

Why would communities be interested in using the WGS? 

There are, de facto, huge “water markets” existing in rural India, where demand for water investments far exceeds currently available resources, thus creating competitive dynamics for resources. The “consumers”, as it were, are water-stressed communities in search of water-related investments. The “suppliers” are investors or resource providers who seek out opportunities that yield returns desired by them, be they financial, social or otherwise. 

This situation creates the opportunity to signal and incentivise communities to undertake the needed changes (behavioural and otherwise) in order to attract water investments. And likewise, helps investors identify those communities which are most likely to deliver the envisaged results. 

Giving a “water score” to such communities brings transparency and efficiency to such “water markets”, helps uncover opportunities and risks, aligns communities and investors and enables adoption of strategies that incentivise sustainable outcomes.  

By addressing the core concerns of both stakeholders – opportunities or investments for communities and choices for investors – the WGS can help change water-related behaviours, channelise resources to the water sector and realise sustainable water outcomes. And therein lies its transformative potential.

Once water-stressed communities realise that securing high “water scores” improves their chances of attracting needed water investments, their willingness to accept a certification process would likely increase. In a situation where funding and resources are limited, projects which have a high potential for success will likely attract more funding than others. 

How will the rating system work? 

The Water governance standard assesses the community by looking at how people manage water from the governance side, from the supply side, how they manage demand and looks at sustainability which includes equitable access and water for nature. 

Thus it looks at the following dimensions: 
•    Water Availability and Quality 
•    Institutions, Representation and Governance  
•    Water Supply and Demand Management  
•    Transparency and Accountability  
•    Equitable and Non-Discriminatory Access to Water  
•    Environmental and Ecosystem Sustainability

Rating as bronze, gold, silver and platinum categories is made on the basis of a composite score achieved of 100 points. The supply side component has 45 points while the rest together have 55 points.

People say why emphasise supply side; but we think that in a country where 60-70 percent of agriculture is rainfed, we need to ensure that we have enough water, only then can you manage it. Increase water supply, but then also look at other factors. Communities receiving a score of below 50 points are not certified.

Each one of these levels are indicators of risks involved in terms of investments and also of remedial actions needed to be undertaken to mitigate risks and improve social capital. So WGS not only looks at ratings and certifications, but also helps communities uncover areas for improvement and offers them ways to improve their behaviours and practices. And in the process, gives them a chance to improve their water score and ranking. So the message here is, if you want to be water secure, take responsibility and work towards it; improve your water score to get access to needed financial resources. 

In rural areas, when people see some villages getting resources that they also need, they get curious and want the same. If the benefits received are the outcome of an evaluation or credentialing process that is open to all, then, such awards can become a source of inspiration to other villages, in this case, looking to enhance their water security.

Certification, like public awards, can have a “knock-on” multiplier effect that can drive desired behavioural change. Thus, our hypothesis is that this rating system that focuses on attitudinal and behavioural change can draw large amounts of financial resources for water security in rural India. And the higher the water score is, the more communities will be able to unlock financial resources to sustain their efforts and also motivate other communities to aspire for water security thus leading to changes in attitude, behaviour and practices related to water.

What will happen to villages that have not done so well in the rating system?  How will you help them take decisions?

While villages who get a score below 50 points will not qualify, the rating process itself uncovers areas where they score poorly and need to improve. Working on these aspects can help them meet the eligibility requirement and also improve their water score and rating thereafter. The WGS approach provides for the development of a remediation action plan to qualify as well as improve one’s rating. 

However, we do not intend the WGS toolkit to be applied to provisioning of water to meet basic human and animal needs such as for drinking, sanitation, hygiene and nutrition. Whatever the certification level or water score of a community, water provisioning for basic needs will have to be made by publicly funded programs (or otherwise) as water is a fundamental right.   

What the WGS seeks to achieve is to make such basic and additional provisioning of water sustainable, equitably accessible and also available to nature, by getting communities to change their mindset towards water and manage it responsibly and efficiently. The WGS can be applied to funds from whatever sources, be they government, public, CSR, donors, etc, especially since financial resources are limited and water demands hugely increasing relative to water availability. 

What are the checks and balances that you plan to use to ensure that the assessment remains objective? Who will certify ratings in the villages?

We have put the tool out there for free to be used by agencies or people who need it. As it is used across geographies, the learnings and insights gained will help to improve and customise it to local contexts. In order to popularise the WGS as an operational tool, WOTR/W-CReS will undertake certification of villages where water investments are planned or considered on behalf of investors, donors and CSRs.

Further, it will train and accredit interested agencies and institutions in the concept and practice of applying the WGS toolkit so that they also can become “third party” accreditors. As this catches on, we expect that certification will gradually become an essential input in investment decision making as well as in project implementation. 

We will also organise awareness events for investors, donors, CSRs, etc., and development practitioners to familiarise them with the potential of the WGS to drive sustainable water-related outcomes and how it can be used to identify viable investment opportunities, build community capacities, reduce risks and monitor project progress. 

We are also planning to develop a software to process and analyse the data collected during the certification process and automatically generate the water score and rating level (i.e., bronze, silver, gold, platinum).

Community participation, crucial for water governance (Image Source: WOTR)

What are your plans with respect to mainstreaming this tool in governmental programmes or promoting them at a wider scale?

The scale of government-funded programmes on water resources development and management in India is huge. Since decades, the central and state governments have been implementing a variety of schemes with respect to provisioning of water for drinking, agriculture and industry, accompanied by policy and regulatory initiatives . 

However, while progress has been made with regard to augmenting water supplies, adequate attention has not been paid to demand-side management and governance of water resources. In Chapter 2 of the WGS Book, we have described how government-funded water projects can benefit from its application (suitably modified as required) particularly in terms of: 

  • Raising awareness: making responsible project management a ‘social good’ and a citizen’s responsibility also, rather than it being seen as a responsibility of the government only; 
  • Identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ and securing early successes in water projects which can have a multiplier effect ramping up successful adoption of practices; 
  • Serving as an assessment framework for awards and competitions;
  • Being used as a framework for rating government-funded water projects and related state agencies.

Introducing a comprehensive certification process such as that of the Water Governance Standard (or key aspects of it) as a mandatory requirement into the design and implementation of government schemes will strongly incentivise behavioural, managerial and institutional changes at the local level, without which the objectives of the scheme will not likely be achieved or sustained in the post-completion period

Can you please explain how it can be applied to real life situations or are there  any examples where you have piloted the WGS? 

In Chapter 2 of the WGS book, we have described how use of the WGS can benefit and advance the interests of various stakeholders, namely, village communities, investors/ funders/ donors (from the public and private sectors) as well as development practitioners, researchers and academicians. And in all cases, both the rural communities as well as the other stakeholders can benefit from a process that results in a “water score” as it can help mitigate risks and strengthen enabling factors in order to realise desired outcomes.

We have piloted the WGS toolkit in 19 villages to date. In 55 of these, we tested and finalised the WGS toolkit in consultation with experts and in 94 of these villages across the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, we applied it. The results are presented in the book.

A sub-section in Chapter 4 of the book succinctly describes the steps involved in undertaking the certification process (or applying this toolkit) which covers preparation, village pre-requisites, data collection and analysis and sharing and validation of the findings with the villages and related stakeholders which can also include a discussion on developing a remedial Action Plan to address areas of concern. 

In fact, Chapter 4 describes in detail the structure and methodology of the WGS as well as the certification system. An Overview of the WGS Certification System is also included in Annexure A. The WGS is a work in progress and has been designed so that it can be customised by users to better suit local conditions and requirements.

And it is our hope that its widespread use will contribute to transforming water management and its governance in rural India and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Adequate and good quality fresh water holds the key to India fulfilling the aspirations of a billion plus people as well as regenerating the diverse ecosystems that sustain them.

A copy of the book can be accessed on the WOTR website here

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