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Grassroot innovations in water management: Policy challenges amidst climate change

By Shubhangi Rai[1], Megha Gupta[2], Mansee Bal Bhargava[3]

India despite of having a vast traditional water management history continue to struggle with water crisis from disasters like floods and droughts but more with social distress leading to asymmetric access to water goods and services. The rising water crisis in a country that is abundant in water resources and wisdom is worth questioning and resolving. The knowledge that was passed on by our ancestors who used a diverse range of structures that helped harvest rainwater locally besides replenish and recharge the groundwater along the way. Formal and informal rules were locally crafted by the community on who to use the water, how much to use, when to use, how to penalise for misuse, how to resolve conflicts and many more. As a nation, we need to revive our dying wisdom of the traditional water management systems and as water commons, enable the governing mechanisms towards sustainability.
In the session on ‘Grassroot Innovations in Water Management-I’, we discuss the need to understand, acknowledge and apply these learnings to be better at tackling the rising water crisis further aggravated by the climate change and the skewed social order. The discussion is led by Dr. Anil Prakash Joshi, Padma Bhushan with a keynote speech. Dr Joshi, also known as Mountain Man, is a well know environmental activist and the founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO). His organisation has done tremendous work in developing need-based technology for the mountainous region. His works include developing sustainable technologies that are inclusive of the ecology, and economy for the ecosystem development. He has devoted himself to resource-based rural development for over 40 years years with focus on economic Independence of Rural India through community empowerment. The session was moderated by our core team member, Prof. Bibhu P Nayak from TISS Hyderabad.
Starting with expressing appreciation for the initiative instituted by Wednesdays.for.Water, Dr. Joshi acknowledged that it is essential to have discussions and debates around water to make people aware of the importance of water as they are the core partner to the water management.

Understanding Water

Water has been one of the most discussed and debated topics for the past two decades but as the French chemist, Felix states that it remains the least understood one. It demonstrates our lack of water understanding therefore, if any efforts are being put in the direction to save water, it should start with spreading the knowledge about water.
The fundamental issue with our understanding of water comes from the two types of lifestyles today. One that of the villages comprising of rivers, lakes, ponds, etc., and the other is in an urban space encompassing tanks and taps. It is difficult as well as challenging to understand the different components of nature including water when our basic understanding is limited. Water will be the greatest threat and challenge for humanity soon. We live in the age of industrialisation where everything is commodified, including natural substances like water. The advancement in technology and lifestyle has also resulted in us finding different ways of consumption without conservation. As a consequence, we see water as infrastructure and not as an essential part of a surviving ecology.
We have a path to understanding nature in our country as we are born where natural resources like mountains, rivers, trees, etc., are worshipped. However, it is observed that we address environmental issues seriously when the western world blows the siren and most of the time it’s too late for the developing nations like us to act. Looking at our ancient texts there is an abundance of information about the natural habitat with scientific evidence, yet we are not taking substantial learning from it. As of now, we have very little understanding of water, and we have a long way to decipher our traditional wisdom.
Culture plays an important role in deciding the consumption pattern of a country. With so much diversity, the culture of rural and urban India is worth looking from different perspectives. Least is, if we look into our ancient literature and adopt the community water management practices then a change can be brought.
There is no denying that water is the biggest challenge of today and we cannot avoid the crisis. The knowledge from the traditional practices can help us channel efforts in the right direction to be better prepared and create awareness amongst people about their responsibility towards the environment. Besides looking at the environmental crisis and the journey to sustainability through a scientific and technological view, there is a need to look through the philosophical understanding of nature.
Human life is accelerated largely due to development which is also an increasingly interdependent process within the system of nature – human – society’. This makes it important to understand the importance of environmental ethics. The discipline of environmental ethics examines the ethical obligations humans have to Earth and the human values that play an important role. If people don’t place any value on the environment, they’ll not likely get involved with movements such as conservation and preservation. We need to understand that it's not just water crisis, but even other natural elements viz., earth/ soil and wind/ air are also highly polluted due to human activities. We are standing at a threshold and the different products of nature that were supposed to give life have become fatal. For example, the air pollution in Delhi and the constant rebuke from the Supreme Court pushes to question the direction in which our actions are leading.


The current policies are designed by keeping the urbanised lifestyle as the benchmark. These are either made in the country’s national or state capitals by people who lack the traditional understanding of water. Especially in the policies related to nature, one of the crucial roles is played by the traditions and indigenous knowledge at grassroots levels. Since the traditions and indigenous practices were never acknowledged in the policymaking process, the latter failed to comply with ecological sustainability. For example, in India, the rivers from the Himalayas fulfil 65% of the water requirement of the country however, the disparity can be seen in most villages that suffer from water scarcity. Ironically, the application of current policies has resulted in water unavailability even when the resources have been full.

Lack of understanding

If we evaluate our actions towards sustainability over the last 20 years, we find that even though the water has been discussed at the international, national and local levels, we do not have any outstanding achievements regarding the water crisis. This is because we choose to ignore the ecological way of functioning. Considering rainwater is the only source of water available to us, we can claim that nature, in its way had designed the best distribution system through lakes, rivers, ponds etc. However, the advent of humanly designed water systems disrupted the natural system. People with technology transformed the natural distribution system of water and altered the water management according to their needs. As a consequence, water slid into the sphere where it became scarce, and the water crisis began.
The present situation questions our empty thoughts and actions. Nature decided to bring water to us through various sources like forests, glaciers, underground, mountains, surface water, etc., however, the water resources is exhausted for our convenience and exploited by trying to control it with the overpowering technology. By stopping the flow of water and changing the nature of the flow, it has led to the development of two contrasting conditions, i.e., flood and drought. The same water which hits us in the form of drought just after that takes the form of a flood. It raises serious questions on our present-day water management approach which is majorly tech dependent and not making us think about behavioural change instead making us extravagant.
For example, with UAE facing a water crisis it proposed to bring Glacier from Antarctica to fulfil their water needs in the coming years. This is an example to prove that we have started to misuse technology and slipped into extravagance. By proposing this unviable solution, we are in denial of acknowledging the natural ecology and instead by reassessing the way we manage water, we try to find alternatives, but the question is for what. The commercialisation of water bottles in the market is another example of misuse of science. When there was a need for pure water, humans developed purifiers, instead of understanding what is making the water impure, we used technology to provide us with instant temporary solutions rather than long-term solutions to our increasing needs.
Science has provided us with alternatives, but it did not provide diversity. In due course of time, nature has given us signals, but rather than understanding and adapting to those changes we tried to overpower nature, when faced with a water crisis. We have displaced water, and then we are clueless about tackling the water crisis now.

Climate change and Water

Global warming and climate change is evident from the melting rate of glaciers which has accelerated and increased by 20% between 2000-2019 according to a French led-research. The study reflects that the accelerated meltdown can have a much adverse effect on freshwater availability as it is already significantly impacting sea levels. Also, in countries like India, the overall shrinking of glaciers can affect the availability of water for daily usage to people who are dependent on seasonal glacial meltdown. The accelerated meltdown can also cause deadly outbursts from glacial lakes in the northern part of the country. These opposing trends highlight the transcending issues of mis/management of our water resources.
It is incorrect for a country like India to always put blame on the rising population for all environmental issues. It is a failure in the management of the resource despite the country receiving a high amount of annual precipitation. We have dismantled the natural distribution system and imposed our systems to fulfil our freshwater needs. There is a drastic disparity in water consumption in cities as compared to villages. The law of nature says a consumer should be a contributor, but this principle is missing from our society, and hence we get trapped in this phase of the water crisis, which will get even more complicated. The disparity of the consumption style and conservation efforts between the urban and rural already speaks of the mismanagement by the urban consumers that is pushing the rural people into more distress.
The IPCC report confirms that the next twenty years will be challenging for the human race with an increase in storms, flash floods and various types of disasters. We cannot fight nature, even science fails in front of nature. An example worth mention is Covid, where it didn’t matter if we had advanced technology but even the most scientifically advanced countries faced the wrath of the pandemic. We must be careful with our decisions that have long-term implications and avoid following the same trajectory as of now so that we don’t reach a point where there is no return possible.
We have landed in this water crisis due to our fundamental disposition of wanting development. One cannot deny development as it is required for a better living standard however, development should not be at the cost of damaging the ecology. Since Earth came into existence around 4.6 billion years ago it has evolved itself and homo sapiens came around 200 thousand years ago with industrialisation coming into existence in just the last century. Since the existence of mankind, we have tried to understand ecology. Indian Vedic literatures have clearly mentioned our bond with Earth to be a mother-son relationship.
“माता भूमि पुत्रोहं पृथिव्या”
Pronunciation: Mata Bhumi putroham prithivyah
Meaning in Hindi: “पृथ्वी मेरी माता है और मैं उसका पुत्र हूँ”
Meaning in English: “Earth is my mother I am her son”
Looking at this evolution, it is clear that since humans started using technology the destruction of earth is harsher and unpredictable. We have approached growth with the intention of progress and infrastructure development without much care for the ecology. Instead, we need to focus on ‘prosperity’ which is inclusive for a flourishing lifestyle. A measured approach towards development in harmony with ecology that is inspired by the traditional practices should be adopted.
The term ‘sustainability’ was rarely used until 1972 and when it became popular after the Brutland Commission Report until this date, the most intriguing question is about what have we learned and practised that can be considered ‘sustainable’ today? Currently, every country globally is struggling to be sustainable on the environmental parameters. Rivers and lakes that were rainfed and helped in flood control and groundwater recharge are drying up to almost on the brink of disappearance with many of the areas grabbed as land parcel for development. For example, a survey conducted in 2014 on New Delhi by the Delhi Parks and Gardens Society revealed that out of the 611 water bodies in Delhi, 274 have already dried up and as many as 190 cannot be revived anymore. Obviously all the lost lakes are land gained for development putting more stress on the water.

Gross Ecosystem Product vs Gross Domestic Product

The consequence of harming nature is most likely to be disastrous as already evident with the rising floods, droughts, landslides, etc. and can only be avoided by developing a better understanding of our ecology. The development that we want should be planned and managed while keeping nature at the centre. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) also states that a healthy environment is a prerequisite as well as a foundation for economic prosperity, human health and wellbeing. India needs to start measuring Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP) to understand the dire situation of our environment.
It is observed that the economic development and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that appears as the means of measuring human progress, never mention water scarcity and drying of rivers but economic gain from bottled water is reflected in it. Now as per a NITI Aayog report of 2018, if the groundwater continues to deplete, there will be a 6% loss in the country’s GDP by 2050. Humans can’t survive without water however, the scarcity of water or access to only polluted water can become a hurdle in progress.
For example, some regions like north Bihar have more water than land. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, these water bodies have been neglected or encroached on for dryland agriculture. The fragile interface between land and water is threatened, and along with that, the lives of the millions of people and other creatures who depend on them. Policymakers have failed to realise that this part of the state has a water economy and not a land economy. This is a result of panacea approach to land use development. The poverty of the state reflects the mental poverty that goes into planning.


The state of Uttarakhand which has recently announced that it will initiate the valuation of its natural resources in the form of GEP is a proposal advocated by Anil Joshi. He concluded with arguing that GEP is an important step for our future generations to have a healthy life that needs to be more widely implemented. We need to understand that water is not just for us, it is for everyone. With its better management, we can still make a healthy planet, but if we continue with our development trajectory, water will go far from us, making life from difficult to impossible. Congratulating Wednesdays.for.Water for deliberating discussions and debates around water issues, he further endorsed our ethos at WforW of, water conversation for water conservation.
On a question on explaining the ways of measuring GEP, Anil Joshi clarified that the only way of calculating GEP is that of ecosystem growth. GDP and economic indicators of growth and development present an incomplete picture and do not present the disparity among the masses. The need for Jal, Jungle, Jameen aur Hawa (water, forest, land and air) is by everyone, and they don’t particularly belong to one entity. Nature created the four elements for everyone, it is the human action that disturbed nature’s equilibrium and discriminated through poor management and distribution. It is important the overall development accounts the environment/ecology. The growth of the four elements of the ecosystem should be monitored and people should be encouraged to nurture them. Information on, how much forest cover is increased both in quality and quantity; how much water harvesting structure is developed; and how much quantity of rainwater is stored and consumed; what is the quality of water; how much quantity of soil is lost or enriched; etc. should be made available.
Meanwhile, the Ecosystem Services framework is also a well-established approach developed as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment by the United Nations in 2000 with objective to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being; and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution.
Bibhu, along with the vote of thanks summarised as how insightful the talk was that made us traverse from the micro to the macro aspects of water management in such a short period of the session. This discussion enlightened us to view the water/ecology as a part of our economy and efforts are needed to make people understand the value of it. The session emphasised that cultural, traditional and empirical understanding of the ecology play a significant role besides the scientific knowledge to resource governance and sustainability.
[1] Student in MA Development, Azim Premji University and Fellow at WforW Foundation; [2] Independent Scholar and Fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation.; [3] Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad.
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdoms with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to engage with policy makers, practitioner, researchers, academicians besides the youth, our future generation to explore the multi-dimensional issues associated with water problems and solutions. The other Team members are, Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Teri-SAS, Del) Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), and counting. The WforW Foundation is reachable at and Wednesdays.for.Water at Click Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to reach the Wednesdays.for.Water social media


1. More info on Wednesdays.for.Water at
3. Session recording on Wednesdays.for.Water YouTube channel
6. Bhargava, M.B. 2022. Extravagance is the Leading cause of Water Disparity & Distress. Water Digest.



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