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A Deep Dive: Uncovering India’s Water Wealth Through First-Ever Census

The inaugural Census of Water Bodies has yielded significant benefits, particularly in cost savings and efficiency.

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India, a country heavily dependent on its water resources for various sectors, including agriculture, industry, and domestic use, has recently undertaken a groundbreaking initiative to conduct the first-ever Census of Water Bodies.

Launched by the Ministry of Jal Shakti in convergence with the sixth Minor Irrigation Census, this comprehensive survey aims to develop a national database encompassing all water bodies nationwide. The census collects vital information on aspects such as size, condition, encroachments, use, storage capacity, and filling status of these water bodies.

The inaugural Census of Water Bodies has already yielded significant benefits, particularly in cost savings and efficiency. By merging the coverage area of the water bodies census and the Minor Irrigation Census in rural areas, there have been substantial savings in planning, training of field staff, security, data entry, and validation.

Notably, the water bodies census also includes urban areas, providing a holistic understanding of water body usage, including irrigation, industry, pisciculture, domestic/drinking water supply, recreation, religious purposes, and groundwater recharge.
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Tech-driven Census Uncovers India's Water Landscape

One of the notable technological advancements in this census is using a mobile app to capture photographs of water bodies along with their precise latitude and longitude coordinates. This digital approach enhances the accuracy and reliability of the collected data.

The Census of Water Bodies results have shed light on India's water resource landscape. A staggering 24,24,540 water bodies have been enumerated, with 97.1% (23,55,055) located in rural areas and only 2.9% (69,485) in urban areas. Among the different types of water bodies, ponds constitute the majority at 59.5% (14,42,993), followed by tanks (15.7%), reservoirs (12.1%), water conservation schemes/percolation tanks/check dams (9.3%), lakes (0.9%), and others (2.5%).

The distribution of water bodies across states is noteworthy. West Bengal has the highest number of ponds and reservoirs, while Andhra Pradesh leads in terms of tanks, Tamil Nadu in lakes, and Maharashtra in water conservation schemes. These findings provide crucial insights into regional variations and can inform targeted policies and interventions for water resource management.
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Water Bodies Unveiled: Utilisation and Distribution Insights

Regarding utilisation, 83.7% (20,30,040) of water bodies are actively used for various purposes such as pisciculture, irrigation, groundwater recharge, and domestic/drinking water supply. The remaining 16.3% (3,94,500) are not in use due to drying up, construction, siltation, irreparable damage, salinity, and other reasons. These findings highlight the need for measures to revive and sustain unused water bodies while ensuring the efficient management of those currently in use.

The census also provides insights into the geographical distribution of water bodies concerning specific programs and initiatives. Approximately 9.6% of water bodies are located in tribal areas, 8.8% in flood-prone areas, 7.2% in areas under the "Drought Prone Areas Programme," 2% in Naxal-affected areas, and 0.7% under the Desert Development Programme. In contrast, the majority, 71.7%, are located in other areas. These findings help prioritise water resource development and management efforts in vulnerable regions.

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Ownership, Capacity, and Size: Insights from Water Census

Ownership patterns of water bodies have also been revealed through the census. Of the enumerated water bodies, 55.2% are privately owned, while 44.8% fall under public ownership. Panchayats and state irrigation/water resource departments own the majority of public-owned water bodies. In contrast, individual owners/farmers and private groups own most privately owned water bodies. Understanding ownership patterns is crucial for formulating policies that promote equitable and sustainable water resource management.

Differentiating between natural and man-made water bodies, the census found that 78% of enumerated water bodies are man-made, while the remaining 22% are natural. Regarding storage capacity, 50% of water bodies have a capacity between 1,000 and 10,000 cubic meters, while the remaining 22% are natural. Regarding storage capacity, 50% of water bodies have a capacity between 1,000 and 10,000 cubic meters, while 12.7% have a capacity exceeding 10,000 cubic meters. These findings highlight the importance of maintaining and enhancing storage capacities to ensure sustainable water availability throughout the year.

The census has also gathered information on the spread area of water bodies. Among the reported water bodies, 72.4% have a spread area of less than 0.5 hectares, indicating the presence of numerous small-scale water bodies. In contrast, only 3.1% of water bodies have a spread area exceeding 5 hectares. These findings emphasise the significance of preserving and efficiently managing smaller water bodies, collectively contributing to local water availability.
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Beneficiaries and Encroachments: Unveiling Water Dynamics

The census provides insights into the beneficiaries of water bodies. A majority, 90.1%, of the water bodies fulfil the requirements of up to 100 people, while 1.7% cater to the needs of more than 50,000 people. Regarding urban areas, 88.6% of water bodies benefit a single city/town/village, 10.6% benefit 2-5 urban areas, and 0.8% benefit more than five urban areas. These findings can guide urban water management strategies and ensure equitable distribution of water resources.

For the first time, the census has collected information on encroachments of water bodies. Out of all enumerated water bodies, 1.6% have been reported as encroached, with the majority (95.4%) in rural areas. Among encroached water bodies, 62.8% have less than 25% of their area encroached, while 11.8% have more than 75% encroached. This data underscores the urgent need for effective measures to protect and reclaim encroached water bodies, preserving these vital resources for future generations.

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Harnessing Census Insights: Advancing Water Resource Management in India

The census findings are already being utilised to enhance water resource management efforts. A significant number of water bodies, 2,29,889, have been incorporated into District Irrigation Plans/State Irrigation Plans, enabling targeted interventions for these bodies. Additionally, data on filled-up storage capacity has been collected for 21,39,439 ponds, tanks, lakes, and reservoirs, highlighting the need for capacity enhancement and maintenance.

As India moves forward, the Census of Water Bodies will continue to serve as a critical tool for policy formulation, planning, and sustainable management of water resources. The comprehensive database generated through this initiative will enable evidence-based decision-making, foster efficient water allocation, and support the preservation and rejuvenation of water bodies nationwide. By addressing key challenges such as encroachment, non-utilisation, and storage capacity limitations, India can ensure the availability of clean and sustainable water resources for present and future generations.

(Dr Anjal Prakash is the Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business. He contributes to IPCC reports. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Water Bodies 

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