I have an Uncle, a retired Chief Engineer, who has worked in the water department of Jammu & Kashmir for many years. He gets really angry when he sees someone wasting water. He loves to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the ‘Rhime of the Mariner’, “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink”. He has warned us of the impending water crisis in the country like a million times. Once he told us in a very serious tone, “Beta, a time will come when we will need loans for buying drinking water”. At that time, I couldn’t understand the concern in his voice, but now I do.
At the start of 2016, drought ravaged many States causing crop failure, mass forced migration, suicide and deaths. Now, the year is nearing its end and the situation has taken a 360 degree turn. The present condition prevailing in the country provides a stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of the year. The monsoon floods have wreaked havoc in many parts of India. States like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh have been worst affected. Around 400 persons have been killed and more than 6,00,000 persons have been displaced. According to experts, while the rainy days have become fewer, the intensity of rain on those days has increased. In this situation, the rainwater has less chance of percolating underground and recharging the water table. It rushes along the surface instead. Riverbeds silted due to ill-planned embankments, dams and barrages do not help.
This set of two contrasting situations provide a compelling evidence that there’s something seriously wrong with the way we manage or rather mismanage water. In the light of these circumstances, it becomes imperative to have an effective water management authority that can address all the issues of water management relating in the country. Recently, the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board led by Mihir Shah, member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, submitted its final report, “A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms: Restructuring the CWC and CGWB” to the Water Resources Ministry. In the report, the Committee has recommended a new National Water Commission (NWC) be established as the nation’s apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance. The report has recommended an urgent overhaul of the current water management systems. NWC will advise the States on how to judiciously tap their water resources and avoid damage to rivers and groundwater.
Presently, there are two institutions- Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Bureau (CGWB) which deal with issues relating to water management. But they both are proving to be incapable of dealing with the present day challenges. CWC was set up in 1945 with a view to manage surface water and creating storage structures such as dams and reservoirs. On the other hand, CGWB was established in 1971 to manage groundwater. Both these institutes do not deal with the water management issues in a holistic manner. At the time of their establishment, India was yet to tap the irrigation potential. Then the main concern of the Government was to address the problems regarding food self-sufficiency through creation of adequate irrigation capacity, but now the situation is entirely different. India has invested trillions of rupees in irrigation projects, but their benefit is yet to be fully realized. There is a gap between created potential and utilization and that is widening with each passing year. It is an alarming situation. Moreover, at that time, climate change was not that big a problem, but now it is. It has created many new socio-economic and political problems which need to be addressed without any further delay.
According to analysts, the restructuring of the present water authorities would ensure proper and effective management of water resources in the country and such a restructuring has been long overdue. The proposed National Water Commission would be subordinate to the Ministry of Water Resources, functioning with both full autonomy and requisite accountability. It would be headed by a Chief National Water Commissioner; aided by full-time commissioners. These commissioners would represent Hydrology (present Chair, CWC), Hydrogeology (present Chair, CGWB), Hydrometeorology, River Ecology, Ecological Economics, Agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and Participatory Resource Planning & Management.
The successful experiments of Asians countries like Singapore and Cambodia with restructuring of their water management authorities can teach India a lesson or two about good water governance. These countries, though much smaller in size than India, have shown great expertise in handling the water crisis. These countries were facing severe water management problems at one time. But after restructuring their water authorities, they were able to overcome those problems. Singapore has been able to successfully cater to the drinking and industrial water needs despite all odds, which at independence in 1965, was more daunting than anything India has ever faced. 
It is advisable for the Indian Government to seriously consider implementing the recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee and now is the time, when half of the country is writhing under the havoc unleashed by the rain floods. It is hoped that NWC would have a robust and transparent management system with minimum government interference. But changes in policy alone cannot cure the problem. Take for instance the case of Nmami Ganga Project. Crores of rupees have been spent on cleaning Ganga, but it hasn’t yielded the desired results. It has continued to become dirtier. It’s because of the attitude of our people. It’s our apathy towards this valuable resource because of which we are having these problems. Our exploitative nature knows no bounds. Unless that changes, we cannot expect policies to work and solve all our problems ‘miraculously’. Therefore, along with the policy changes, the Government needs to devise certain strategies for education and awareness of the citizens regarding water issues, so that they are able to contribute significantly towards preservation and conservation of this precious gift of nature.
“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”