Independent Journalist Conservationist Consultant
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Recognised as a global concern, analogous to oil, water reserves have assumed grave importance both at the macro and micro levels. Not only because it is linked to individual well-being and economic growth and development, but also because most sectors of economy are water-guzzlers.
In a historically agricultural economy as India, plagued with the vagaries of monsoon and floods/ droughts, the role of groundwater as a precious natural resource cannot be diminished, especially in an age of changing climate and cropping patterns.
The ground level scenario
Like other nations, India too has its own custodians for management of water resources (See Text Box). Core agencies also identify and map hotspots of salinity, chloride, fluoride, arsenic, iron and nitrate in groundwater, for ensuring quality control of groundwater. However, most online information is of a generic nature, lacking detailed database or methodology used.
| Ministry of Water Resources – policy making arm of the Indian Govt., responsible for the National Water Policy currently under review.
Central Water Commission (CWC) – apex technological organisation in water resource development, functioning under the Ministry of Water Resources. Its primary role remains that of an initiating and co-ordinating agency.
National Water Academy (NWA) offers in-service training to Central and State officials.
Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) – nodal agencies for mapping, monitoring and regulation of groundwater.
Water Quality Assessment Authority (WQAA) – monitors water quality and geochemistry in shallow aquifers in India.
National Institute of Hydrology – studies hydrology and water resources in India, of which groundwater forms an integral part.
Depth to water level map (January, 2011), Central Ground Water Board /Downloads
On the whole a picture evolves of national bodies looking into the groundwater policy and potential zoning on a hegemonic model, with regional state-level groundwater departments.
However, it is the self-funded organisations or NGOs working with foreign grants, self-styled crusaders like Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, autonomous scientific institutes (National Institute of Hydrology) and a few states that are currently working in the groundwater sector in India. Barring SOES, ACWADAM, WOTR and some state government initiatives, the mapping is quiet rudimentary, and in many cases outdated, in the country. There is little effort to engage community or hi-end geospatial technology. Any GIS software used is under-utilised. Neither is geodata cross-referenced with satellite imagery and other data for suitable analysis. The practice hitherto has also been that of on-site resolution only. In some cases, regions or villages reported with fast groundwater depletion or contamination are adopted for study and analysis. The focus has also been on thematic mapping, with few layers, rendering difficult or ineffective any statistical or mathematical probability modelling.
Training and know-how on GIS dimensions for groundwater management are few and rare. It is ACWADAM that has stepped into the gap, offering various training programmes. A breakthrough was however recently seen with a just-concluded training module on groundwater modelling, conducted by CGWB. The geo-enabled thought process in the groundwater sector has only just taken off in India.
Meanwhile, the picture is significantly changing with individual states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka taking initiatives to map, monitor and geo-reference groundwater data for analysis and policy implementation. What’s more, the same is being linked to Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0, albeit, the whole scenario is yet to unfold. Nevertheless, groundwater as a vital water resource is finally emerging as a core issue of e-governance in India, both at the tactical as well as the strategic level.
India recently announced some major initiatives in the geospatial sector like setting up of the Indian National GIS Organisation in a year’s time with focus on environment and water resources amongst others. Also, the National Urban Information System project of initiating GIS in 137 cities across the country has already got off the ground in several states. Although the initial plan proposes to cater to civic infrastructure, it can be reasonably expected that the same will integrate groundwater database radical to urban management, in particular, flood, drainage and groundwater usage. The National GIS programme of the Twelfth Plan, is yet another recent initiative that intends to integrate e-governance with natural and physical assets. Rooted in location based services (LBS), this is expected to roll out in phases over the next three years. With proposed real-time online streaming and layers including community participation, India has much to look forward to.
The Geospatial Approach
Potential zoning has been done using remote sensed data and imagery, chiefly by government organisations. Salinity-fresh water interface, resistivity profiling and geophysical logging have been executed by the CGWB. Mathematical modelling has been used for urban environments in Ranchi and Patna. Database and water stress have been studied in watersheds in Madaram, Kottukalthuda, Sanger river and Yamuna basin. Similarly, groundwater modelling for analysis was done in Lucknow, Purulia district and others.
Regional mapping however has picked up in recent times, with states, NGOs and the CGWB in particular, creating a nationwide spatial groundwater dashboard.
Contaminant mapping, was first initiated by SOES, with updated geo-referenced material on the web. With arsenic contamination of groundwater along the Gangetic plain affecting states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, SOES has been actively making use of geospatial technology for study and analysis.
The CGWB (Munger district) and various other institutes have been mapping fluoride contamination recorded in as many as 20 states of India. Urban management using the GIS has already been initiated in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru. The rural perspective of groundwater can be seen from both zoning and profiling approaches, mapped to some extent using terrestrial borehole logging and well monitoring. Initiatives by organisations like Arghyam in conjunction with ACWADAM and other institutes have resulted in mapping and monitoring of several villages and contentious zones for problem resolution.
Potential GIS best practices in groundwater management in India
Potential zoning for groundwater reserves and monitoring its usage is fundamental to predictive analysis and forward planning. Regional profiling and watershed analysis of groundwater parameters, with focus on drawdown, recharge rate, contaminants, landfill and coal mining leachates, hydrogeological flow patterns, salt water intrusion in coastal areas as well as effects of hydraulic fracturing on sites close to a river basin, like in the Cauvery, need to be examined using best geospatial technology applications.
At the elementary level, field training, on-site information and potential GIS applications are areas that maybe spruced up. Prohibitory costs and lack of access to enterprise-wide solutions or modelling software are a deterrent. This may be resolved to an extent via government incentives, subsidies and abolishment of duties on GPS devices or GIS software custom-made for groundwater.
Need for appropriate geospatial legislation and controls
As in other fields of natural resource management, groundwater management too needs to be weaned away from its conventional mindset and practice thereof to a SaaS approach. At the helm, this calls for geospatial legislation with stringent policy implementation, both at the institutional and legal level. Mapping, monitoring and updating of spatial, vectoral and temporal groundwater database may be made mandatory at the state level.
Legislation needs to address groundwater usage, especially commercial, while also monitoring agricultural regions for excess drawdown, salinity and leachates. Herein GIS can be successfully applied to effect increase in food productivity, using topographic data, satellite imagery, modelling and groundwater management technologies.
While some on-site mapping is being done for comparison of drawdown and recharge levels, trouble spots too need to be identified for remedial management. Remote sensed imagery and technology help identify hidden reserves and permeability, as well as monitor underground hydrological movements. In arid zones or regions with trans-boundary aquifers, a legal framework for water sharing will help alleviate potential conflicts, whether inter-state or cross-border.
Incentives offered by government for use of geospatial technology and application, development of apps and open data platforms to share groundwater data, is another area that needs to be looked into. Costs of both GPS devices and GIS software maybe subsidised for easy access to customised groundwater data and integration into workflow.
In tandem with emerging geospatial policies such as groundwater data integrated within the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 initiatives and hybrid cloud services integrating the semantic web, would enable an effective ROI on groundwater geodata with minimal cost and time overlays. Stringent controls for geospatial-assisted monitoring and a collaborative effort of e-governance and social semantics to elicit citizen participation (PPGIS) and crowd sourced data are areas that hold great possibilities. This was adequately demonstrated by Delhi Municipality’s Facebook initiative for contaminant monitoring.
A centralised groundwater databank with continually updated data layers, together with deployment of network licensing is a hitherto unexplored territory. However, there also needs to be a clear demarcation or definition for core or sensitive data that aligns with the future national open data policy.
Local governance is radical to effective and integrated groundwater management. Development of a geospatial strategy, prioritising goals and encouraging investment in geodata and use of technology would enable an effective ROI for on-site resolution. Collective governance by stakeholders, especially in regions of shared aquifers with a data feedback loop, is cardinal to regional groundwater remedial management.
Cloud computing, the latest buzzword in groundwater modelling, has unlimited potential for simple on-demand SaaS. Geospatial is critical to standardised datasets, that uploaded to rented servers or dedicated cloud computing providers, can offer back-end solutions with easy UI. This will go a long way in building a sustainable geospatial ROI, which goes by “Build it once, use it a bunch”.