Reimagining solutions to India’s water challenge: the art of governance

Clare Shakya and Ritu Bharadwaj explain why India’s water security crisis demands a disruptive, locally led new approach to governance, and offers eight principles that could help shape one.

Clare Shakya's picture Ritu Bharadwaj's picture
Insight by 
Clare Shakya
Ritu Bharadwaj
Clare Shakya is director and Ritu Bharadwaj is senior researcher of IIED’s Climate Change group
20 January 2021
Woman digging a hole in the forest

Women involved in construction of water conservation structures under MGNREGS in Uttar Pradesh, India (Photo: Ritu Bharadwaj, IIED)

India supports 17% of the world’s population with only 4% of the world’s freshwater. Since 1950, water availability per family has fallen by 70% and 600 million people face acute water shortage. India, the UK and the Netherlands are exploring a collaboration to address this water security issue.

But this not just a quantity challenge. As the disconnect between India’s central, state and sectoral priorities, limited staff and budget, and signs of emerging conflict over water sharing between states illustrate, this is also (as in many other countries) an issue of governance.

Technical innovation is not a magic bullet

Water in India is currently managed by multiple actors at different levels of government. These various actors command, control, monitor and distribute water through a range of government programmes and schemes, which are often set up to deliver universal technical solutions.

Within these schemes, there is limited room for communities to experiment and explore innovative, context-appropriate solutions that might help to break perpetual cycles of drought or flooding.

Even in programmes that offer decentralised decision-making and local resource allocation – like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), India’s largest public works-based social protection programme, communities can only choose from a list of agreed interventions, such as water harvesting and sanitation infrastructure.

A disruptive ‘business unusual’ approach

This standard approach that focuses on ‘technofixes’ has not yielded solutions to India’s water crisis, which interacts with and are influenced by multidimensional issues such as poverty and climate change. We therefore need an approach that focuses on the ‘art of delivery’, and one that has locally led governance at its heart.

There is a need to reimagine the role of technological and infrastructural solutions as tools within a broader toolkit to address the governance deficit.

By structuring the problem differently, we can create a new process to explore, nurture and deliver a range of models, approaches and solutions for India’s diverse social, cultural and ecological landscape, building on the leadership India has shown on participatory approaches to development to support adaptation that responds to local drivers of vulnerability.

This process needs to be supported by decentralised networks in which partners and institutions have devolved decision-making powers that allow them to experiment with and then scale up workable good practice in water resource management.

It would aim to build collaborative partnerships with a range of water practitioners, including non-governmental organisations, community representatives, government actors, technology innovators and suppliers, small enterprises and corporates, creating an innovation marketplace.

Here we offer eight principles of locally led adaptation that could help the collaboration between governments in India, the UK and the Netherlands to shape such a mechanism for governing and delivering water in the country.

These principles have been developed through broad stakeholder engagement under the Global Commission on Adaptation to enable more effective locally led adaptation.

Eight principles for locally led water governance and delivery

  1. Subsidiarity: involve the problem holders and solution innovators at the appropriate level to resolve challenges, with an emphasis on engaging local actors and communities to create locally led (and locally accountable) solutions, which have been shown to be more cost-effective, relevant, agile and diverse.
  2. Tackles structural inequalities: invest in the capabilities of women, youth, children, disabled and displaced people, Indigenous Peoples and marginalised ethnic groups, and involve them in co-creation, joint decision-making and accountability for solutions that recognise India’s diversity in social, cultural, gender and political norms.
  3. Patient capital: provide patient, predictable and risk-taking funding that aims to change the incentives for trying out new solutions and approaches fundamentally and also provides sight to longer term finance for scale-up.
  4. Institutional legacy: support innovation in governance arrangements that are vertically integrated across central, state and local actors and horizontally integrated across sectors and stakeholders
  5. Robust to climate futures: combine local, Indigenous and traditional knowledge systems with scientific and technical insights so as to test solutions across the range of possible futures (climate, economic, aspirational) and identify approaches that are robust, minimising regrets and maximising opportunities.
  6. Flexibility for learning: invest in the learning and transparent feedback mechanism to make space for diverse viewpoints and allow approaches to be adjusted as we learn from practice.
  7. Transparent and accountable: make transparency and accountability central to the learning process, encouraging peer-to-peer interaction, citizen feedback and social audits, and exploring the importance of incentivising behavioural change.
  8. Collaborative: create a social and collaborative knowledge network that grows through referrals (inviting more partners and organisations) and evolves by resolving trade-offs and maximising synergies, so that collaboration increases along with the knowledge base.

Through a collaborative, devolved governance approach like this, one that draws on ideas from across the whole of society and rapidly gathers and shares learning, India could capitalise on many innovative solutions already being tried, such as the rejuvenation of the Kyalasanahalli lake, near Bengaluru, Karnataka.

This is particularly relevant as the Indian government is shifting its approach from large dams to small structures, from supply side to demand side water efficiency and participatory management.

And by helping us all – government actors, donors and technical advisers – to reimagine what’s possible in water governance, such an approach will ensure we are better placed to tackle India’s water crisis and its interconnected climate, nature and poverty challenges together.