Vijay Kumar interview: key water challenges in India and lessons from the region

An interview with Vijay Kumar, the South Asia representative for the Australian Water Partnership. Vijay Kumar is a water and environment specialist working and an alumnus of Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). He shares his expert insights on the key water challenges in India and lessons from the region.

Vijay has been instrumental in bringing water and wastewater management expertise and treatment technologies from Australia to the South Asian market. He has been working closely with Australian water and environment industry and advising them on business entry strategies, strategic partnerships and collaborations in South Asia.

Interview topics

  • Involvement of Australia and AWP in India’s water-resources management projects
  • Key water issues in India at the moment and plans and steps identified to solve them
  • Comments on gender equality and social inclusion in India
  • Advice for people wanting to work in India
  • Vijay’s thoughts on, and suggestions for Kini

Vijay Kumar, as AWP’s South Asia representative, can you tell us about Australia’s and AWP’s involvement in water projects in India?

I’m a water environment professional, and I have been promoting Australian solutions to South Asia for more than ten years now. In September 2017 I took up this role as South Asia representative for the Australian Water Partnership (AWP).

In India, we have been engaged in various projects on water resources management, primarily supported by the World Bank and India’s Ministry of Water Resources. Australia has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of India Ministry of Water Resources and that provides the basis for our engagement at the federal level. Australia also has multiple agreements and MOUs with various states in India. The year 2019 will mark a decade of MoUs between Australia and India. That’s a long journey that our two countries have travelled, developing our sharing of information on water resources management.

Australia has been approached by the World Bank to provide our technical expertise in basin planning, water resource information systems, water data management systems, and in the capacity-building component of the National Hydrology Project. As a result, and through the AWP, Australia is currently involved in four projects.

  • One is called ‘Development of the Basin Planning User Guide’ which is going to be a tool for the various departments and state governments when they do their basin planning and modelling. We are giving them a tool to guide them through the entire process of basin planning, based on Australia’s experiences in the Murray-Darling Basin.
  • The second project is the development of the National Water Information Centre. This is to be one of the ultimate outcomes of the National Hydrology Project. Our team has reviewed the existing water resource information system that exists in India and we have suggested a few recommendations based on that.
  • Third, the Government of India has approached us to support them in the next stage of development of the National Water Information System. As part of that, there will soon be three or four experts from the Australian Water Partnership working with the Indian Government and helping them develop the National Water Information System. For instance, designing the architecture, and how data will flow from the individual states and how that can be modelled centrally, and how those data will be used to support the decision-making processes ahead.
  • The other component of the National Hydrology Project where AWP is involved is the capacity-building component. Here, our partners will be giving training on how to develop water-management skills for stream-flow forecasting, and flood modelling and forecasting. Participants will be the staff of various Indian state governments that are part of the National Hydrology Project.

Also, AWP has been approached by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, which is a drought-prone area in southern India. That government is starting a new ‘green city’ project to build a new capital city for a new state called Andhra Pradesh, which is being carved out of an old state. Australia has been approached through the Singapore Government and the local state Government of Andhra Pradesh to help them design the water-sensitive component of the whole urban planning that they’re about to do. The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities is taking the lead in that project, to incorporate the water sensitive design component into the overall master plan for the new city. We hope this will be a benchmark project which can be replicated across other smart cities projects in India.

What are the key water issues in India at the moment, and what plans or steps have been identified to solve them?

First, water availability. India has around 4% of the global freshwater resources, to supply a population that is around 17% of the global human population. As well, the population of India is growing, and urbanisation is also growing. The demand for the limited freshwater resources is going up, and on top of that, the water quality is not good, in neither the surface waterbodies nor the groundwaters, because of the absence of a proper water treatment networks.

Therefore, water availability is not only a challenge but also is getting worse as the existing water resources are becoming increasingly polluted.

The second key issue in India is that we are too dependent on groundwater resources. We obtain almost 55% of our water supply from groundwater resources, and most of that is used by the agriculture sector. The sector meets 65% of its demand from groundwater. Agriculture is also causing pollution because it uses lots of pesticides and fertiliser that potentially contaminate groundwater resources.

In fact, research by AWP and others has predicted that by 2050 there will be a deficit of 30% in the water demand and supply situation in India, which is really alarming.

A third key issue is the low level of awareness about water scarcity. People don’t realise the economic value of water, and hence we are not very efficient in its use.

As well, there are spatial and timing variations in the availability of water resources across India. It’s a vast country and the climate varies across the regions from north to south and from east to west. Some areas have floods, but not enough reservoir capacity to capture them, so most of the water flows out to sea. Other areas have droughts every year and water is scarce.

We would like to know how to improve water resources planning so that rainfall over, say, two or three months in the year can become a source of water for the next 12 months.

In short, the key challenge really is how to manage our limited water resources via proper planning and management. A data information system could help us improve that decision-making.

Both federally and in civil society, people are aware of these issues. We have support from multilateral operations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, helping the Government of India to address the issue of water availability. Naturally, it is a larger humanitarian issue as well, because humans need water to survive.

To try and solve these issues, three or four key initiatives have been begun. One program aims to promote the efficient use of water and reduce the water wastage in the irrigation sector. The aim is to convert the watering systems away from flood irrigation and replace them with drip irrigation or sprinkler irrigation systems instead. The program is called the Prime Minister’s Agricultural Irrigation Scheme, or ‘More Crop per Drop’. and it promotes efficient use of water in the irrigation sector. It’s a big project, close to $10 billion of funding going into it over a period of 10 years. That’s around $1 billion being spent each year in promoting irrigation-user water efficiencies in agricultural fields.

The second big initiative is a program called the National Groundwater Management Improvement Project (NGMIP), and it will be launched this year, 2018. Its targets are to manage the groundwater resources, aiming for better assessment of the groundwater volumes available, and also to create institutional reforms to help restrict the unlimited uses of groundwater. One such reform may separate the land right from the groundwater right. It’s a goal that has been talked about for the last 20 years, and it is hoped that the NGMIP will help us move towards that dream. Separating land and groundwater rights should lead to the more sustainable use of groundwater.

The third initiative is focused at the river-basin level, where most water resources planning is done in India. We are aiming to map every user in the basin and allocate water to them according to real demand. To achieve this, the third phase of a large project was launched almost a year ago. Phase 1 of the Hydrology Project ran from 2002 to 2005/2006. Phase 2 ran from 2008 to 2012. This third phase is called the ‘National’ Hydrology Project because it’s being implemented across the whole of India, in all the states. Its purpose is to have real-time data acquisition systems on water resources so that we have real data that help us in the decision-making process and we can make better allocations of precious water resources to the various stakeholders. When we have a better assessment of the demand, then even with limited supply we can manage the demand throughout the year.

Apart from these three key initiatives above, there are multiple other initiatives. Flooding is a major issue on the eastern side of India, especially in relation to the two big rivers Brahmaputra and Ganga, which cause floods every year. Efforts are being made to make communities in these areas flood resilient and provide them with some protection against floods and against the consequent damage and loss to life and property – which of course are major causes of concern. One initiative is aiming to convert those from disasters into economic revenue by putting in small check-dams to create localised hydropower which can be a source of income for the community.

Similarly, in western and central India, drought is a regular phenomenon. In spite of the drought, you need to have sustainable agricultural practice there, not only to serve the large population but also to provide the livelihood of the farmers. A couple of initiatives in those areas aim to transform our current agricultural practices to more climate-ready practices, with more sustainable use of groundwater. This project is being started this year in the State of Maharashtra: it is called the Maharashtra Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture. It is a $600 million project which will lead to an improvement in the current agricultural practices and the lives of the farmers involved in agriculture in that particular area.

What is your view about India’s participation in improving gender equality and social inclusion?

That’s an interesting topic, and many water professionals and practitioners in India have really struggled to bring this social inclusion concept into water resources management. The WASH program — the Water and Sanitation Initiative and Hygiene program of the UN and World Bank — has included gender equality and social inclusion pretty well, and they have amalgamated participation from all sections of society. Women have really played a decisive role in achieving the objectives of the WASH program. But when it comes to water resources management planning, women are, I’d say, very very under-represented in the decision-making processes.

It’s because of the culture in India, and because the Indian water-professional network, especially in the government, is dominated by people with an engineering background. Engineering has not been something that attracted women in India, but now we’re seeing a few of the younger generation coming into that profession. It is time men started engaging with these women. In the future, they will be the decision-makers in the system.

At the community level, yes, there is much more gender equality. We are seeing women taking the lead in the decision-making processes of community-level projects. But at state and national level, I think there’s a lot of work to be done yet.

Can you share advice and tips for young water practitioners wanting to work in a huge and diverse country that is India?

India has 29 states, and every one of those 29 states is a different market and has a different culture and different dynamics in the way it operates. Thankfully, the English language is used everywhere, however.

For water practitioners looking to India for opportunities, I suggest they focus on a particular project or need or area, and not try to spread themselves across the whole country or do everything, which would be difficult to manage.

India’s a developing country with a lot of money — close to $20 billion/$25 billion being spent on water as a sector, from urban water management to water resources management, and from basin planning to flood forecasting and groundwater management and rural water supply. Right across the water value chain, there are numerous projects being funded and run, currently.

There definitely are clear market gaps, and the market is not price-sensitive. Service providers are coming to India from all over the world. In fact, you may be surprised to know that almost 40% or 50% of water treatment equipment in India is imported, so that market is certainly not price-sensitive: if people can afford imported water treatment equipment it means there’s an appetite to have better quality equipment to work on.

Every type of water market is different. The urban water sector is different from the agricultural irrigation use efficiency market and the basin planning market, for instance. Each sector or market has different departments working in it, a different way of working, different sets of customers that you’ll be talking to.

If you want to work in India, I advise you to make sure you have allocated some time to invest in India, to examine the market, to travel to the market at least twice or three times a year, to develop relationships within that market. Only then, talk of business. Relationships are very important.

And patience is important also, and flexibility because matters do not proceed along timelines. They change depending upon the political and other scenarios. You need to have patience, but relationship-building is most important.

Relationships are key to working in any southern Asian country — Vietnam, Myanmar, …. they are just the same.

Is there anything you’d like to share with the Kini community?

First of all, Raymond, this Kini initiative that you are running is great. It is a good way to share information and knowledge with people who aspire to work in different markets. I’ve seen people looking here for answers to certain questions. The information is really helpful also for a lot of people who don’t know anything about these different markets, and for those who want to know what’s happening in their field in different regions. It is all very good.

Also, I would like to suggest you enable linkages between members of the Kini community and the Kini audiences, through which people from different markets can interact. That is, create a platform for them also. Perhaps we can build a young water professional community in LinkedIn supported by Kini, so young professionals from different regions, such as Vietnam, Myanmar, India, China, can form a group and interact. That would be a valuable addition we could make to support the Kini community.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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