1.0. The Need for a National River Policy
Flowing rivers are the lifelines of millions of humans and no humans alike. Vast number of people meet their drinking, domestic and non domestic and agricultural needs of water from the water flowing in the rivers. The fisherman and other dependent groups earn their livelihood from the river waters. The health of millions is dependent upon the water quality and thus the health of the rivers and water flowing in them, needs to be viewed from national health perspective, too. With more than 80 per cent of the Indian population dependent upon 14 major river systems in the country, an urgent action is imperative for the formulation of National River Policy.
In the recent past, Government of India (GOI) has undertaken number of programs focused primarily on cleaning of rivers but any long term vision with enabling policy support to revive rivers in their entirety has remained a distant dream.
Water Pollution Act, Central Pollution Control Board, State Pollution Control Boards exists along with several legal provisions for pollution abatement. Projects like Ganga Action Plan, Yamuna Action Plan and the National River Action Plan have been implemented with little success and unsustainable outcomes.
Rivers provide report card of what we do in their catchments. It needs to be reinforced that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a nation is presently calculated without taking into account the economic value-loss due to destruction of flowing rivers, and many other natural systems.
It must be kept in mind that a river as an ecosystem is much more than water flowing in it and hence policies and laws meant for ‘water’ alone, as they do exist in the country, are inadequate to meet the revival and conservation needs of a river system.
In this context, formulation of a National River Policy is a need of the hour – a need which can neither be delayed nor ignored further.
2.0 Perspective of National River Policy:
2.1. River Definition:
A river is a natural stream of fresh water that flows into an ocean or other large water body and is usually fed by small streams (called tributaries) that enter it along its onward journey. A river and its tributaries form a drainage basin (or watershed) that collect the available runoff and receives / discharge ground water (GW) in effluent / influent stretches and channels water along with transporting eroded sediments toward the sea. The run-off component of the principle hydrological cycle gets bifurcated into surface run-off and sub-surface ground water flow. This bifurcation gives birth to a supplementary sub-component of a major hydrological cycle and, under the force of gravity, the dynamic part of infiltrated water is advanced downstream. The infiltrated sub-surface water is partly released back to join the natural hydrological cycle (river) and part moves underground to join the sea. The eroded sediments are deposited all along the lower course of the river, forming floodplains along its banks and finally a delta at its mouth.
River can also be defined as a hydrological, geomorphic, ecological, biodiversity rich, landscape developing natural system that plays key role for the water cycle, balancing dynamic equilibrium between snowfall, snow-mass (including glaciers), rainfall, surface water, groundwater and providing large number of social and economic services to the people and serves ecosystems in its watershed. It also supports livelihood and is a living eco-system.
Environmental flow is that quantity of flow (water) in the river system which is essential for the safety of dependent creatures, human beings and vegetation along with their optimum development and survival and for the discharge of natural functional responsibility. Drop in the environmental flow below optimum level leads to degradation of river health, unsafe conditions for the survival of aquatic life, unfavorable environment for discharge of its natural responsibility. The national technical committee will decide the minimum limits for environmental flow in different river systems.
Study of all aspects related to river system is defined as river science. The aspects studied under river science are mainly Biological (Stream Ecology, Limnology, Fisheries Science, Aquatic Entomology, Benthic Ecology, Aquatic Toxicology, Landscape Ecology) and Physical (Hydrology, Hydro-dynamics, Fluvial Geomorphology, Civil Engineering, River Morphology, Quaternary Geology and Hydraulics). Apart from this, culture, history, social traditions etc are also important subjects covered under River Science. In this context, it can be said that River Management is not simply management of river water but it encompasses management of entire Eco-system of the river.
Natural Responsibility of River System
The responsibility of a river system is to develop its valley. The rain component of the hydrological cycle use the river course for onward journey of rain water and in first phase, the river water dissolves the soluble compounds and lifts loose material (rock fragments and soil etc). In the second phase, the river water transports the eroded and dissolved compounds. During transportation, it enriches the flood plane by depositing silt. In the final phase, the river water deposits the transported material (finest) to form the delta and the dissolved salts are added to the sea water. The transportation of particles is determined by slope of the river bed and the flow velocity and therefore any change or modification in the river course, change the natural function giving rise to anomalies. These anomalies change the basic character and increase flood prone water logged areas.
River Water Management
The River Policy attempts restoration of maximum flow and minimum abstraction from the rivers. The purpose is to ensure environmental flows in rivers while maintaining unhindered its ecological and economic services to dependent communities. The policy envisages delegation of management powers to the empowered community/ies.
2.2. Water Availability in Indian Rivers
It has been estimated that out of total precipitation of around 400 million hectare meter(mhm), the approximate surface run-off flowing through Indian rivers every year is nearly 195.3 million hectare meters. The depth of yearly flow in Indian rivers is 51 centimeters (cm) where as it is 17 cm in Asia, 26 cm in Europe, 31 cm in North America, 8 cm in Australia, 20 cm in Africa and 45 cm in South America. Our ground water reserves are around 43.2 mhm. The average ground water depth for the country is 11 cm. The water availability data indicates that India is the richest country in the world. One may recall that till recently, our ground water reserves have been supporting the non-monsoon flow in rivers of our country in a benevolent manner.
3.0 Information System
The run-off data or water availability for major river basins is readily available and is well documented by CWC and state departments but the data for a unit area (small watersheds between 5000 hectares to 10,000 hectares) on relationship between monthly non-monsoon flow and corresponding ground water reserve depletion is completely missing. The contribution of the quantity of sub-surface waters to hydrological cycle of Indian rivers is also not available. The river rejuvenation initiatives will need flow and water table decline data vis-à-vis corresponding ground water draft for the unit area (here after called milli-watershed). This data base is the prime requisite for meaningful river system planning and undertaking projects to restore / revive the glory and functional responsibility of Indian rivers.
4.0 Goal or Vision of the National River Policy:
The goal or vision of the river policy is to enable rivers to be rejuvenated to maintain and sustain their environmental flow, perform uninterrupted natural function and ensure benevolent services to all living organisms in a meaningful and sustainable manner.
4.1. Guidelines of the National River Policy:
Rivers are the integral part of the surface and sub-surface environmental system providing natural shelter to dependent living aquatic organisms and the natural source of fresh water for the well being of society. The formulation of river policy provides a guideline for functional restoration of the river system and for its sustainable conservation to fulfill its environmental functions and to meet the social, cultural and religious needs.
The guiding principle of the policy enables GOI for formulating a National River Policy framework (Vision Document) and through in-built provisions; GOI shall delegate necessary powers to state governments for formulation, development and implementation of policy vision within a framework defined under the sub-head GOAL. The state river policy shall make suitable legal provisions; establish implementing infrastructure and delegate management powers to local democratic bodies to facilitate their participation in the governance of River waters. State Governments will however enjoy the powers of a trustee and shall be responsible and accountable for ensuring the policy goals. Parliament will ensure suitable entry in the Indian Constitution.
The state organization (Nodal Agency for implementing the Rivers Policy – Ground Water Directorates) will implement programs; undertake studies and feedback workshops of primary stakeholders for the rejuvenation and restoration of rivers in terms of ensuring minimum environmental flow, their health, livelihood support to dependent community, cultural heritage and national value. At village level, associations of adult villagers will provide umbrella for the participation of local communities and user groups to play a crucial role in the process of water governance. PRIs will support the initiatives and programs in achieving the long term goal of the State River Policy through provisions of Panchayat Act. The policy envisages community initiatives to check deteriorating efforts at the local level. These initiatives should be supported and supplemented by government infrastructure and enabling orders.
The Policy emphasizes that rivers along with its water and aquatic life, are the sole property of the people who live in its immediate neighborhood and shall be managed by them debarring interference by external agencies, individuals, organizations or institutions. The local bodies including PRIs should support the initiatives taken for restoration of river flow and glory.
4.2. Governance Principles:
Governance principle of a river waters should be completely transparent and participatory. For every stretch of say 10 km length of a river, there shall be a governance committee with open ended membership. The committee will have 50% women representatives as members, one representative of each stakeholder group and all sarpanchs coming in the river stretch. The chair- person shall be elected amongst the available sarpanchs. The committee will take decisions, monitor the river stretch and suggest such actions which are in accordance with aims and goals of the policy without violating the provision of the State Panchayat and other Acts. The committee will have access to all information and activities affecting such stretches. It will be accountable for implementing decisions and deliverable outcomes through respective panchayat. These committees may be federated up to the river basin or state level with elected representation from lower tiers.
4.3. Support to existing Ground Water infrastructure
Environmental and surplus flow restoration and protection of river health vis-à-vis role of existing ground water infrastructures for providing optimum benevolent services to the dependent community are interlinked and hence should not be seen as conflicting issues or issues to be seen in isolation therefore policy supports protection, augmentation and optimum operation of existing ground water infrastructure in the unit area of the river stretch proposed for flow augmentation.
Flood plain zoning (demarcation) needs to be done by concerned departments on the ground. This zoning could be done on the basis of inundation of land due to floods in past 100 years. Flood planes should be protected through adequate measures by the concerned department. No detrimental modification or change in land use be allowed to alter natural profile of river and cyclone affected areas. State governments should clearly demarcate above areas, make them public by giving wide publicity and make rules for checking their encroachment.
4.5. Coordinated action against Polluters
State River authorities may be delegated powers to initiate coordinated action to deal with persons, institutions and other categories of polluters responsible for polluting the river waters. The river authorities will however actively co-ordinate for promoting suitable initiatives and plans for dealing with solid and liquid waste pollution, sewer treatment and safe disposal of wastes.
4.6. Environmental river flow and enabling state level policies.
Environmental flow in non-monsoon season is controlled by ground water contribution therefore efforts will be made to augment groundwater to its optimum level needed for maintenance of perennial environmental flow in the river. The state organization should prepare a time bound implementation programs for maximum restoration of flow (above environmental flow). GOI should provide financial support directly or through Rural Employment and Poverty alleviation schemes / programs for local initiatives. State government should frame enabling policies and rules for the sustainable use (ensuring environmental flow and meeting basic needs if feasible) of river waters of a unit stretch (supported by a small drainage basin with approximate size ranging between 5000 to 10000 hectares).
4.7. Prioritizing River Water Use and its management.
4.7.1. Prioritization of River Water
The policy emphasizes following prioritization sequence for the sustainable use of river waters –
- Environmental flow
- Drinking Water (Nistar) needs.
- Water use for livelihood and agricultural excluding its use in water intensive crops.
- Water use for Celebrations, Public Gatherings on festivals or religious occasions, Fairs and Cultural Tourism.
- Water intensive crops and water consuming activities.
Policy emphasizes that environmental flow of the rivers and meeting drinking (Nistar) water demands of local community is the first and the foremost priority and nothing contrary or detrimental to this is allowed to be done. In this context, the policy supports monitoring of river flow by community at the river stretch level. This monitoring should be used in permitting use of river water for meeting water needs in order of decreasing priority.
4.7.2. Concept for sustainable management of River Water
The policy emphasizes following concept for sustainable management of a river flow –
Availability of flow is a key factor in river flow management. We know that except rivers originating from snow peaks, the non-monsoon flows of a river are invariably from groundwater source therefore uninterrupted river flow through groundwater augmentation, sustainable management and sensible use has been considered socially appropriate and technically essential. The state level organization should undertake programs and delegate management powers to the empowered community to manage them and ensure its support to them through appropriate laws, instructions and enabling provisions. It may be recalled that there has been a tradition in India for Community River Management. The need is to restore and revive the traditional system, with credible in-built safeguards for equity for Dalits, tribes and other neglected groups.
Depending upon the water availability in the river stretch, the policy considers it appropriate (if viable) to support economic activities but at the same time, it discourages non-essential water intensive / consuming activities in the water stressed or water deficit stretches.
5.0. Sustainability of River water flow and allocations
5.1. River Water Allocations
Policy emphasizes the allocation of river water for different uses (refer sub-paragraph 4). The allocations will be made only after satisfying the sustainability of the environmental flows. The basic needs (drinking, and nistar) of the community should be assessed and quantifiable allocations be made. In the light of local situation and requirement, the state governments shall make further allocations for other uses. The basis for further allocations should be the available balance in which priority should be given to poor for livelihood activities. The allocations for basic and other needs, should be reviewed and revised every ten years following the up-to-dated census data.
5.2. Improving the natural flow of rivers:
Ground Water is a renewable natural resource. It gets replenished in every monsoon. The natural decline in water table takes place due to discharge in rivers and springs. The decline is further enhanced due to groundwater withdrawal / exploitation for meeting various demands. Therefore, for improving the natural flow in rivers, the water table has to be maintained above river bed level till next monsoon. In the past, most of the rivers were perennial because there was not enough exploitation pressure on ground water reserves and natural discharge was not enough to lower down levels below the bed level of most of the rivers. Increasing ground water drawl has increased the pace of decline and is responsible for depleting non-monsoon flow. For improving the natural flow, the decline situation has to be combated proportionately. The policy therefore emphasizes proportionate ground water replenishment to sustain and improve the non-monsoon flow by undertaking proportionate recharge programs, construction of interlinked SW and GW structures for improving natural resource base along with water saving practices. These initiatives will be undertaken on watershed concept basis in a unit area between 5000 to 10,000 hectares. The initiatives will began from uppermost catchments and shall be completed by covering the entire basin in subsequent phases. The efforts will be in proportion to needed natural flow. The Watershed Atlas of India (1990) may be used by the nodal agencies and impact of interventions may be monitored at the outlet of unit area (here after called milli watershed).
River Policy also emphasizes promotion of all such initiatives which improve flow in the river system. These initiatives could be traditional or modern or mixture of the two. The policy promotes the initiatives for water conservation, rain water harvesting in rural and urban areas along with reuse and waste water recycling etc.
Policy emphasizes linkages and data sharing with other line departments. It emphasizes establishment of a Data Bank at the central and state level. The data bank (National or state level) will be the repository of all relevant data, information, maps and computer soft wares.
5.3. Approach and Basis for Project Planning
State authorities should undertake mapping of depleting river stretches and based on the grave ground situation and community needs, project prioritization list should be prepared and finalized. Projects should there-after be conceived on the basis of prioritization list and technical feasibility.
The unit length of all such stretches should be nearly 10 kms and the contributing ground water area (milli watershed) should be between 5000 to 10000 hectares. The feasibility report should invariably assess the month wise flow decline / availability, corresponding ground water draft and lowering of water table. On the basis of this data, a rough estimate of corresponding recharge needs, corresponding water availability, water source / sources and feasible structures could be conceived and finalized. The feasibility survey should invariably highlight / discuss the negative factors and suggest ways and means to minimize their negative effects. The assessment (approximate quantification) of negative factors (ground water draft, loss due to sub-surface flow etc) and loss reducing measures should be made the integral part of the feasibility project.
Milli- Watershed wise groundwater resources assessment should be undertaken independently or with the help of regional office of Central Ground Water Board and or State Ground Water boards / Directorates each year in the treated river stretches to understand the river flow situation vis-à-vis exploitation stage. Empirical relationship between stage of ground water exploitation and river flow should be determined to develop regional litho-unit wise parameters for future guidance in different topographical situations. The necessary monitoring of flows with quantity and quality of water shall be done and will be made available in the public domain bearing the sanctity, uniqueness and inviolability of rivers. The policy document emphasizes community feedback and direct / indirect scientific methods to assess the impact and outcome stage for furthering the efforts. These results should be shared with primary stakeholders in a transparent manner. Efforts could also be made to rejuvenate those old water sources / structures which contribute to the defined goals of river revival.
The use of river water for meeting drinking water needs of nearby locality or city or adjoining agriculture fields etc should be permitted on the principles of demand and supply ensuring the basic sustainability of the environmental flow. The river authorities in the respective states will facilitate promotion of awareness camps for water saving techniques such as sprinkle and drip irrigation. This campaign should be done in collaboration with State Agricultural Department (SAD), KVKs and State Agriculture Universities (SAU).
The state river authorities should therefore associate themselves with SAD, KVKs and SAUs in the awareness/ demonstration camps for promoting effective irrigation systems, moisture augmentation, promotion of organic and natural farming, promotion of SRI and SCI techniques, selection of crop on the basis of river water availability in consultation with the community and promotion of innovative techniques. The state river authorities should also associate themselves in the process of refining and improving efficiency of water distribution system, promoting social and equitable processes, awareness programs on water governance and promotion of water / soil conservation technologies among farmers.
The coordination with Forest Department is also equally important as forests with good fodder / tree cover are good recharge areas for groundwater and feeders of non-monsoon flow.
5.4. Role of forests in sustenance of flow in rivers
The policy firmly believes that the rich forests in the river catchments have a crucial role in augmenting the depleting flow in the initial reaches of a river system. The policy emphasizes that officers of the nodal agency will continuously coordinate with forest officers for ensuring the sustained environmental flow. They will also impress upon them to undertake sufficient water conservation works in the river catchments so that the flow is not only improved but also become perennial i.e. sustained in non-monsoon months.
6.0. River Water quality and pollution monitoring
6.1. Monitoring of River Waters for quality and pollution
Policy emphasizes monitoring of river water quality and pollution by promoting social infrastructure and understands that social system will provides effective feedback system to concerned departments, institutions, boards and corporations to take remedial measures.
State level River organization will also prepare a list of all polluted river sections and liaison with concern ministries, departments and boards for undertaking remedial measures.
6.2. Management of Climate Change
State level river organization should promote studies on climate related changes in sensitive stretches to revise river water resource management activities. State level organization should also coordinate with line departments for knowledge sharing and feedback so that functional units could be educated to take appropriate measures for drought mitigation / management. The probable climate change is influencing the rainfall pattern and increasing the flood intensity in certain pockets therefore this situation demands flood management by promoting adequate water conservation activities in appropriate areas of the river system.
Water deficit areas will also need attention. State level River organization will also prepare a strategy for meeting the challenge of climate change in consultation and collaboration of line departments and reputed national institutions working in the field.
7.0. Formulating laws and policies for water flow stressed stretches.
State level river organization should identify flow stressed stretches. In all such stretches, to overcome the existing and probable disputes and wise use of flow, a socially accepted community system needs to be developed, supported and put in place for sustainable conservation measures along with optimum water use.
This community system in consultation with local panchayat should regulate lifting of river water for drinking purposes, meeting normal irrigation needs and for other uses. This permission will be given after ensuring minimum environmental flow.
The concept of ownership of ground water and land rights should be discussed and consensus for their differentiation should be arrived through community accepted system. The aim is to inculcate the feeling that water is a common property resource and its equitable use or distribution is the requirement of the civil society.
8.0. Capacity building
Capacity building initiatives are required at different levels. These levels will be community, state and national. The concept of community empowerment in the entire process needs to be considered as an integral part. The capacity building programs should include participation of water user groups, PRIs and community members for enabling them to exercise their respective rights and faithfully perform their duties for meeting the common goal. Sensitization programs and sharing of best practices should be organized at higher levels.
8.1. Capacity building at state level
The capacity building of the state level officers is to sensitize them for their all round skill development so that they could function as friend, philosopher and guide. Therefore, the state level officers should be provided opportunities for refinement of their skills. The desired fields could be area of their specialization, different facets of river science, acquaintance with data-processing techniques, management skills and promoting pro-active approach for river water management. State level officers shall develop literature, reading material, process guidelines, schedule of rates and manuals for the use of different stakeholders. GOI may arrange state level brain storming workshops for experience sharing and learning best practices.
State level officers through appropriate mechanism will impart need based training to its officers, river water user groups and other community members to enable them to function efficiently and effectively. State level officers will worked out a strategy for better communication, sharing of community experiences, analysis of collected data for continuously refining the technical knowledge and interventions for achieving the policy goals.
8.2. Efforts through NGOs
Policy emphasizes Information, Education and Communication (I.E.C.) activities through NGOs. River Water education programs should be organized in schools to educate and sensitize young brains to the current river water scenario, importance of environmental flow, philosophy of river water management, river water pollution level, causes, conservation, revival, effective water usage and cultural heritage etc. NGOs could be encouraged to facilitate community education on behavioral change in terms of better river water management, health consciousness, waste water disposal, conservation of river eco-system and livelihood support approach to poor.
Capacity building of community on efficient river water use for drought management and adoption of efficient agriculture practices, meeting climate change, enabling social structure, chemical and microbiological water quality hazards, environment management could be promoted by integrating programs of government, funding agencies and other sectors.
The policy also emphasizes association of committed persons, educational institutions, cultural groups and religious institutions for awareness generations for safeguarding the river waters. Voluntary labor campaigns could be promoted by state government, civil societies, PRIs and local community including primary stakeholders.
9.0. Research and Development
Policy emphasizes research to be made an in-built component for refinement of methods and innovative interventions. This could be achieved through support and promotion of government and non-government institutions engaged in meaningful research on river water management and restoration of past glory. Possibility could be explored for seeking support from individuals, inter—state, national and international agencies. Some of the areas for undertaking R and D activities could be as given below-
- Optimizing management of river water resources in the light of climate change.
- Ways and means for encouraging river water parliaments (democratic set-ups).
- Litho-unit wise studies / research for refinement of methods and technology for sustainable environmental flow.
- Area wise Studies to delineate aquifer for adopting best recharge options and practices.
- Study of social and economic impacts of project implementation on different stakeholder groups and PRIs.
- Success stories and experience sharing for improving role of Women’s participation in river water resource management
- System analysis for meaningful coordination between state government, PRIs and federation of river water groups.
- Success stories and experience sharing for improving Equity based river water improving community response.
- Studies for improving IEC techniques for effective community empowerment.
- Sharing studies on water saving agriculture practices and crop selection
- Studies on management and maintenance of water related infrastructure for sustenance of environmental flow.
- Study on Innovative and or traditional systems, practices and structures for safeguarding water quality and public health.
- Research on development and refinement of effectiveness democratic infrastructures for river water management.
- Providing technical, logistical, material support for training and orientation of river user groups on water conservation, management and water quality.
- Developing ways and means for building sense of ownership among different stakeholders including landless and dalits.
- Providing technical support to communities.
- Conflict resolution amongst groups, PRIs and other line departments.
- Coordination between Water User Association and River Water Association.
- Study on sensitizing techniques for River water federations for effective discharge of their roles and responsibilities.
- Documentation and Study of traditional river management practices in different socio-economic setups and its possibility for revival.
10.0. Science and Technology
For effective and sustainable restoration of rivers function, the frontiers of in-depth knowledge of natural parameters of river science needs to be understood, enhanced and suitably researched. Some of the areas requiring immediate attention are-
- Ground water assessment for river stretches (Unit area 5000 to 10,000 hectare) and their linking with depletion behavior of a stream.
- Development of unit area wise non-committed run-off atlas.
- Inventory of existing water bodies and their linkage with river system for augmenting flow and its duration.
- Assessment of relationship between river flow, its depletion and stage of ground water exploitation in different hydro-geological environment and agro-climates.
- Groundwater hydrology with reference to recharge and discharge in different regions / litho-units.
- Hydro-meteorology and water quality.
- Safety and effective life of recharge structures.
- Prevention of sea water ingress.
- Rain water harvesting and linking surface water conservation systems for flow augmentation.
- Other appropriate scientific inputs not included in the above listed.
The National River Policy envisages the commitment of people of India for rejuvenation and restoration of optimum river flow in our rivers to sustain their minimum environmental flow, existence, uninterrupted natural function, past glory and providing basic services to their dependents in a sustainable manner.The success of the National River Policy will entirely depend upon our commitment, support, enabling rules, administrative orders and endeavor in sincerely translating the aims and objectives, in a time frame by instituting enabling infrastructure and ensuring community support.