Water bodies census reveal rural-urban disparities

water bodies census
India's first water bodies census highlights the importance of preserving India's 2.4 million ponds, tanks, lakes, and reservoirs.

India’s first water bodies census: At a time when several countries in the world are grappling with a water crisis, India has decided to make a comprehensive database of ponds, tanks, lakes, and reservoirs in the country to take stock of water bodies across all states and Union Territories. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has released the report of India’s first water bodies census which was conducted in 2018-19, and enumerated more than 2.4 million water bodies across the country.

The census took into account both natural and man-made water bodies while also highlighting disparities between rural and urban areas. The importance of the report cannot be overstated for policymakers as stressed aquifers pose difficult ecological, economic, and policy challenges. The report will prove pivotal in urban planning and rural employment generation schemes.

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According to the report, of the 2.4 million water bodies enumerated in the country, 97.1% are in rural areas and only 2.9% are in urban areas. Five states collectively hold over 60% of the water bodies in the country. This includes West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Assam. The report also said that a higher percentage of water bodies are under private ownership as compared to public domain. 55.2% of water bodies are owned by private entities whereas 44.8% of water bodies are in the domain of public ownership. Also, 59.5% of water bodies are ponds, followed by tanks (15.7%), reservoirs (12.1%), Water conservation schemes/percolation tanks/check dams (9.3%), lakes (0.9%) and others (2.5%).

The insights from the census hold high importance as water is one of the most important resources available to humanity. So much so that it is speculated that the third war will be fought over water. This is because while water is a recyclable resource, its availability is limited. There is a gap between the supply and demand which is widening over time. That water is more precious than other commodities can be gauged by the fact that in some countries, a litre of drinking water costs more than a litre of petrol and diesel.

The census did not cover all water bodies such as oceans and lagoons, rivers, streams, springs, waterfalls, canals, swimming pools, covered water tanks created for a specific purpose by a family or household for their own consumption or a water tank constructed by a factory owner.

Need for water bodies census

While the government practiced maintaining a database of water bodies that were getting central assistance under the scheme of Repair, Renovation and Restoration (RRR) of water bodies, a Standing Committee of Parliament in 2016 pointed to the need to carry out a separate census of water bodies.

This led to the commissioning of the first census of water bodies in 2018-19 along with the sixth Minor Irrigation (MI) census. The same was carried out with an aim to collect information on aspects such as size, condition, status of encroachments, use, storage capacity, status of filling up of storage, etc. of available water bodies.

Importance of preserving water bodies

There is a saying in Hindi which goes “jal se hi jeewan hai,” i.e., life is only because of water. Water bodies are a crucial resource for any nation, and while India is home to a vast network of rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, these water bodies are under threat due to pollution and climate change.

Preserving water bodies is of utmost importance in the Indian context. Being a nation that is largely agrarian and still monsoon-dependent, the importance of conserving water cannot be emphasized enough. Many of India’s major rivers, such as the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, and the Indus, flow through agricultural regions, and their water is used for irrigation. A threat to these rivers means a direct and severe impact on the country’s food production.

Water bodies are also critical for the industrial sector, which uses water for cooling and other purposes. India is home to numerous industries, ranging from small-scale industries to large multinational corporations. Without adequate access to water, these industries will not be able to function properly, which will have a negative impact on the country’s economy.

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Water and sanitation for all is a key target in the United Nations’ sustainable growth agenda (SDG 6) for 2030. While many parts of the world are already running out of water, including India, it is estimated that a third of the world population will soon have no access to safe water. By 2050, around 5.7 billion people could face water scarcity for at least one month a year. Water bodies are hence essential for human survival.

In India, many people rely on water bodies for their daily water needs, and millions of people depend on fishing for their livelihoods. If these water bodies become polluted or depleted, it will have a severe impact on the health and well-being of the people who depend on them.

For further census initiatives, the government must enlist help from panchayats, municipalities, and other local bodies, as well as roping in civil society groups, as this could help policymakers arrive at a better picture of the water crisis and frame solutions.