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India’s First Water Body Census

Context:  The Ministry of Jal Shakti recently released the report of India’s first water bodies’ census.

India’s First Water Bodies Census

  • Need for the Census: The Union Government earlier maintained a database of water bodies that were getting central assistance under the scheme of Repair, Renovation and Restoration (RRR) of water bodies.
    • In 2016, a Standing Committee of Parliament pointed to the need to carry out a separate census of water bodies.
  • Aim: The census aimed to collect information on all important aspects of the water bodies including their type, condition, status of encroachments, use, storage capacity, status of filling up of storage, etc.
  • Methodology: A software for data entry and a mobile app for capturing the location and visual of the water bodies were developed, and data-processing workshops were conducted to train the surveyors in all States and Union territories. The census was built on existing and publicly available satellite-derived datasets.

Why was there a Need for Water Body Census?

  • Water Crisis in India: India is facing a water crisis with groundwater decline, biodiversity loss, and climate change increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. In this regard, water bodies are important.
  • Water Bodies as Buffer: They provide a buffer against climate variability, holding flood waters for use in dry periods.
  • Food & Water Security: Water bodies contribute to food and water security as well as livelihoods by recharging groundwater and providing water for irrigation and livestock.
  • Cultural Importance: Water bodies also have cultural and ecological significance.
  • Uniform Data Required: Since water bodies are managed by different agencies from State to local to private entities, the data must be uniform and easily accessible.
  • No Data on Smaller Bodies: While data on reservoirs and rivers has been available on the India Water Resources Information System (WRIS), there has been no data on smaller water bodies that are the lifeline of rural India and critical cultural, flood-control and recreational spaces in cities.

Key Observations Based on the Data

  • Small Water bodies: Most water bodies in India are very small and the vast majority of India’s water bodies are less than one hectare (ha) large.
    • The traditional way to map these water bodies, using satellites, may not work, which is why this census in ground-based tracking is very welcome.
  • Regional Pattern of use and ownership: The water bodies show regional patterns that correlate with rainfall.
    • In drier States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, water bodies tend to be larger and publicly held. The water bodies are primarily used for irrigation and groundwater recharge.
    • In the wetter States, like Kerala, West Bengal, and States in the northeast, more than three-quarters of the water bodies are privately owned.  The water bodies are used for domestic use and pisciculture dominates. Mid-sized water bodies are largely panchayat-owned.
  • Lack of Repair: Most water bodies have never been repaired or rejuvenated. Several water bodies were classified “not in use”, meaning despite the recent interest in rejuvenating water bodies, most of them have never been repaired or revived.

Shortcomings in the Census

  • Exclusion of Ecological Functions:  Fish and birds feed on water bodies and these water bodies also provide roosting and breeding gaps spaces for resident and migratory birds. The census does not address issues related to these ecological functions and focuses only on human use.
  • Lack of Coverage: The census questionnaire does not include eutrophication, sewage pollution, and solid waste dumping as possible reasons for abandonment or disuse of water bodies in few States.
  • Inconsistencies in the Census: The census groups water bodies into five types: ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, and water conservation schemes.
    • However, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Many tanks that were traditionally used directly for irrigation serve primarily as recharge structures today.
  • Lack of Data Standardization: The data was not standardized across States. Some States like Gujarat do not show any water bodies not being in use, whereas Karnataka reports almost 80% of its water bodies as being in a state of disuse. This suggests differences in interpretation by the enumerators.

Way Forward

  • The first water body census provides high-level indications on the way forward by detailing ownership, state of use, and the costs of construction and repair.
  • It points to how and why water bodies must be restored, which agency’s capacities need to be strengthened, where and how much funds are needed, and who will benefit from such efforts.
  • If such censuses are conducted every five or 10 years, over time, they will accurately represent emerging trends and the state of water in the country as a whole.

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