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India’s First National Water-body Census, Need, Findings, Shortcomings and Way Forward

India’s First National Water-body Census: The National Water-body Census is a massive nationwide survey conducted by the Indian government to create a comprehensive database of all water bodies in the country, both natural and human-made. India’s First National Water-body Census is also important for UPSC Prelims Exam 2023 and UPSC Mains Exam (GS Paper 3- Environment and Ecology).

India’s 1st National Water-body Census in News

Recently, the Ministry of Jal Shakti published the results of the India’s First National Water-body Census 2023.

National Water-body Census 2023 Details

The first-ever water body census was a necessary and significant undertaking aimed at creating a national database of information on water bodies’ size, ownership, status, purpose, and conditions.

  • The census encompassed all human-made and natural units that store water, regardless of their use or condition.
  • The surveyors in all states and union territories were trained through data-processing workshops, and a mobile app and data entry software were developed to capture the location and visual of water bodies.
  • The census utilized existing satellite-derived datasets, which are extensive and allow citizens to access historical time-series data for specific villages.
  • However, these datasets only contain observable attributes, and the water body census extends beyond this to include social characteristics such as ownership, use, and condition.

National Water-body Census 2023 Findings

Based on the data collected through this extensive national effort, several observations can be made regarding the spatial and temporal trends of water bodies across the country.

  • Most water bodies in the country are very small — the vast majority of India’s water bodies are less than one hectare (ha) large.
    • This means locating and keeping track of them is likely to remain a challenge.
    • The traditional way to map these water bodies, using satellites, may not work, which is why the mammoth effort expended in ground-based tracking is very welcome.
  • The water bodies show regional patterns that correlate with rainfall — in general, in drier States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, water bodies tend to be larger and publicly held.
    • In the wetter parts of the country, like Kerala, West Bengal, and States in the northeast, more than three-quarters of the water bodies are privately owned.
    • In drier States, the water bodies are primarily used for irrigation and groundwater recharge while in wetter States, domestic use and pisciculture dominate. Mid-sized water bodies are largely panchayat-owned.
  • Most water bodies have never been repaired or rejuvenated — several water bodies were classified “not in use”, meaning despite the recent interest in rejuvenating water bodies, most of them have never been repaired or revived.

Need for National Water Census

India is currently grappling with a severe water crisis, as a result of a decrease in groundwater levels, loss of biodiversity, and the increasing occurrence of floods and droughts due to climate change.

  • Water bodies play a vital role in mitigating this crisis by acting as buffers against climate variability and storing floodwaters for use in dry spells.
  • In addition, they contribute to food and water security by replenishing groundwater, providing water for irrigation and livestock, and hold cultural and ecological significance.
  • However, these bodies of water are increasingly threatened by pollution, encroachment, urbanization, and drying.
  • Conserving and managing them effectively requires action plans that are based on baseline data, which must be easily accessible and uniform, given that water bodies are managed by different agencies at various levels.
  • Moreover, traditional and contextual knowledge from communities should be integrated with formal data to achieve effective management.
  • Despite the availability of data on reservoirs and rivers through the India Water Resources Information System, there has been a lack of data on smaller water bodies that are critical to rural areas and serve as cultural, flood-control, and recreational spaces in cities.
  • These led to the need for India’s first national water census.

Gaps in India’s 1st National Water-body Census

Although the water census was a monumental undertaking, we should exercise caution when analyzing the data. Few important gaps in India’s 1st National Water-body Census are discussed below-

Limited focus on Human use of Water Bodies

Although the water body census was a monumental effort, there are some noticeable gaps in the data. While water bodies play a crucial role in supporting biodiversity, providing a habitat for fish and birds, the latest census fails to address this issue.

  • The report acknowledges that water bodies support healthy ecosystems, but the focus was limited to human use, specifically pisciculture or fish farming, which does not reflect the natural biodiversity.
  • Additionally, the census did not address important questions regarding the reasons for abandonment or disuse of water bodies, with the category “others” emerging as a significant reason.
  • This might be due to the possibility that the census questionnaire overlooked the most common reasons such as eutrophication, sewage pollution, and solid waste dumping.

Inconsistency in Categorization of Water Bodies

The water body census displays some inconsistencies in its categorization. It groups water bodies into five types, namely ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, and water conservation schemes.

  • While ponds are defined as smaller water bodies than tanks, water conservation structures may include check dams and percolation tanks.
  • However, these categories are not exclusive, and many tanks that were previously used for irrigation now serve mainly as recharge structures.
  • The data shows that in Karnataka, these tanks were classified as ponds and tanks for irrigation purposes, while in Maharashtra, they were categorized as water conservation structures for groundwater recharge.
  • The irrigation statistics for both states suggest that neither state relies heavily on tank irrigation.

Lack of Standardization of Data

Standardisation of data was not maintained uniformly across States, as observed by the fact that Gujarat reported no water bodies as being unused, while Karnataka reported almost 80% of its water bodies as being disused. This inconsistency in reporting indicates variations in interpretation by the surveyors.

  • Additionally, there are concerns about the map of North Karnataka, which appears to have a lower density of water bodies.
  • However, since the original geotagged data has not been released yet, it is unclear if some districts were overlooked or if the region genuinely has a lower water-body density.

Way Forward

Despite the limitations, it is crucial for the government to continue conducting nationwide censuses of such a vital resource with necessary modifications.

  • The first edition of the census provides high-level indications on the way forward by detailing information on ownership, state of use, and construction and repair costs.
  • It highlights the importance of restoring water bodies, identifies agencies that require capacity strengthening, determines the amount and location of necessary funds, and identifies those who will benefit from such efforts.
  • Conducting such censuses every five or 10 years will enable the accurate representation of emerging trends and the state of water in the country as a whole over time.

JALDOOT App: Monitoring the Ground Water Tables Across the Country

JALDOOT App: Monitoring the Ground Water Tables Across the Country

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What is the National Water-body Census?

The National Water-body Census is a massive nationwide survey conducted by the Indian government to create a comprehensive database of all water bodies in the country, both natural and human-made.

Why is the National Water-body Census important?

The National Water-body Census is important because it provides baseline data that can help in the effective management and conservation of water bodies in India. It also helps to identify areas where resources can be targeted for water body restoration and management.

What information does the National Water-body Census collect?

The National Water-body Census collects information on the size, purpose, ownership, status, and conditions of water bodies. It covers all natural and human-made units bounded on all sides for storing water, irrespective of condition or use.

How is the National Water-body Census conducted?

The National Water-body Census is conducted using a software for data entry and a mobile app for capturing the location and visual of the water bodies. Data-processing workshops are conducted to train the surveyors in all States and Union territories.

What are some of the limitations of the National Water-body Census?

Some of the limitations of the National Water-body Census include inconsistencies in the classification of water bodies across states, gaps in the data on the ecological functions of water bodies, and differences in interpretation by the enumerators.

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