Understanding peri-urban water management in India

July 14, 2014
Louis Turcotte
Access to water is a major concern in India, where rapid urbanization and the unpredictable effects of a changing climate are aggravating water tensions. In the southern city of Bangalore, one of India’s largest urban areas, older water supply reservoirs are almost dry while artificial lakes within the city are contaminated by sewage. The city has chosen to pipe in water from more than a hundred kilometres away, an expensive approach that has also now reached its limits because of inter-state water sharing requirements.

The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a research institute based in Bangalore, is leading a project to understand the effects of climate change and urbanization on water availability in such basins in India. Funded through IDRC by the Government of Canada’s fast start financing program, the project aims to build general scientific understanding while also helping local populations better address water management. Sharachchandra Lele is the lead researcher on the Adapting to Climate Change in Urbanizing Watersheds (ACCUWa) project.

The problem of multiple stressors

ATREE’s research suggests that while rainfall is important, other factors like population growth, land use change, and industrialization greatly complicate the picture.

Rain in India is highly seasonal, and a disruption in the monsoon cycle could have significant effects, especially for rainfed farming. However, points out Lele, “others in the water sector—irrigated agriculture, urban, and industrial users—are all buffered to varying degrees against seasonal and even inter-annual fluctuations by storage systems, including not only artificial reservoirs but also groundwater aquifers.” Indeed, the recent history of water in south Asia is one of increasing damming and diversion of rivers and highly unsustainable extraction of groundwater. In this context, “climate change is certainly a stressor, but not the main one. The impacts of economic growth and high population are more significant,” he says.

Adaptability, not adaptation

Adapting to an uncertain water future, when existing linkages between use and impacts are poorly understood, is a major challenge. In such a case, adaptation is really about improving adaptability, which in turn means helping water managers understand the system better.

Lele and his team are engaged in contributing to building the fundamental knowledge base. They also have some preliminary recommendations to improve access to water in India, including regulating groundwater use directly or indirectly, increasing water reuse in cities, and distributing river water more evenly through dual sourcing. The team is hopeful that their research will effect change at a higher level. “The practices that will result from this project will help improve land planning with respect to the natural flow of water,” says IDRC Senior Program Specialist Bhim Adhikari. “Hopefully, this research will also influence water management policy in India, and spur some much-needed improvements.

Louis Turcotte is an Ottawa-based writer.