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This is the second story in a series of articles launched by Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

In a 2017 paper written by Dr Veena Srinivasan, there is an illustration of a researcher standing next to a dry river, laptop in hand, questioning a farmer – "What do you mean the river is dry? My model predicts a flood."

The paper titled 'Doing Science that Matters to Address India’s Water Crisis' informs us: "No matter how it is measured – water poverty, water vulnerability, water scarcity, water risk, water insecurity, or environmental water scarcity – by every measure, India is one of the most stressed countries in the world."

In the wake of our biggest crisis, this may seem like old news. But as we look at the present climate crisis in dismay, researchers like Srinivasan will point us to the reality that somewhere this is our own undoing. In the absence of research to answer critical and fundamental questions, and a culture that encourages fieldwork or collaborative approaches, what Srinivasan conveys through the illustration is not humour, but the truth.

Srinivasan is a Senior Fellow and leads the Water, Land and Society Programme at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. She is also the Director, Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation, ATREE. She completed her PhD from Stanford University in the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Her postdoctoral research involved developing a framework for a global freshwater initiative. 

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"The basic equations that govern water and energy balances were developed for the western world, and we just apply them. We should be looking at our own processes because our systems are unique, our watersheds are unique, and our ecosystems are unique."

Through her research in the Arkavathy and Noyyal basins, Srinivasan was able to highlight the impact of human actions on water stress. Her research also aided in comprehending the reality of groundwater levels in South India. More recently, she has been involved in addressing the gaps in citizen-driven lake restoration projects in Bangalore. 

In this interview, Srinivasan talks about the importance of field research, understanding where our water conservation policies stem from and why it is crucial to address human impacts on water. 

You have been researching water crisis and management for almost two decades. How did you get interested in this field of research?

I started my career in energy and not water. My undergraduate degree was in physics, during which I realised that I wanted to do more applied and socially relevant work. Initially, it was easy to go from physics to work in the energy sector. But energy is very dominated by private sector players, and I felt that I wasn’t doing what I intended to. 

Once I moved to California, I had the opportunity to work for a water think tank. I found the conversations and discourses around water more satisfying compared to the energy sector. I have always wanted to use knowledge and science for public interest, and I realised that water research was a way to do that. When I got the opportunity to do a PhD, it made sense to deepen my engagement in this field and then, of course, I made the switch completely.

In your research in the Arkavathy and Noyyal Basins, you found that the impact of human actions on water is more significant than climate change. Can you explain this phenomenon?

The answer to this question requires a little bit of context. When we started working in the water sector, there was a tendency for research establishments to say that climate change is the biggest problem. It is a big problem, and there is no doubt about that. But the issue is when you recognise climate as the only problem that you need to deal with, every change becomes a manifestation of it. 

With the Arkavathy basin, for example, a series of papers assumed that the drying must be because it is raining less in this region. When we started looking into it, our research found that it was raining about the same as always, but there was still an 80-90% decline in streamflow. We looked at other factors and saw the impact of activities such as pumping of groundwater and planting of Eucalyptus trees (unirrigated tree crops which are deep-rooted) – basically, humans modifying the system in very significant ways. This has to be accounted for because if we attribute all the changes to climate change, we will not be able to act.

The Arkavathy River was once the main source of water to Bangalore. Today, both inflows into the river and catchment tanks are drying. 

It allows local institutions and governments to distance themselves from their policies and actions, which are causing more proximate effects. It is also important to note that this is not the case in every basin. Clearly, in snow-fed basins if glaciers are melting and if the ratio of snow to rain is changing, then that is a climatic impact, which can be much more significant. But in some cases, human modifications are worsening the impacts of climate change. Therefore, the disentanglement of climate drivers and anthropogenic drivers is particularly important.

So how did you see these impacts on the ground?

When I say groundwater depletion and reduced soil moisture, those are proximate impacts. But what are the underlying socio-economic drivers for these impacts?

In India, we have had a lot of land division, so land ownership has come down to an acre or a couple of acres, per person. In a couple of acres of land, rainfed agriculture has not been a viable option. What farmers then did was to use groundwater for irrigation and intensifying agriculture. As groundwater tables depleted, a few farmers who had the means to, were able to continue. Others moved to cities in search of jobs.

So on the one hand, there is a pull of urban jobs, and on the other hand, the disappearance of groundwater and lack of rainfed agriculture acts as a push. The combination of these two results in the patterns that you see – drilling deeper borewells, planting crops that don’t need irrigation or opting for non-farm jobs. 

Groundwater is not regulated while surface water is. These two resources are also managed by two different regulatory authorities with different conservation goals. How does this mismatch impact our attempts to conserve water?

If you take the example of Karnataka, surface water is regulated by the Karnataka Water Resources Department or the Minor Irrigation Department, depending on whether it is large dams or small tanks. Groundwater regulation used to be under the Department of Mines and Geology, but now it has moved to the Ground Water Directorate

State and central agencies aim to maintain groundwater levels through artificial recharge and watershed developments. This means they are stopping water in tanks and check dams, and sticking it into the ground. But here is the issue; this water, which would have gone downstream into a reservoir is now being directed into the ground. Basically, you are taking water from one bucket and putting it into another bucket. The surface water which used to go to the tank, which everybody in the village had access to is now going into the ground. It is available only to a few people, and without regulations, you don’t know if the farmers are pumping everything and growing water-intensive crops. This is not new water, and you still need to be in control of how much you are using. 

The Vrishabhavathy River, once a pristine waterbody, has over the years been reduced to a stream of sewage.

A good way of understanding this is by looking at the Hiware Bazar example in Maharashtra. In this village, they ensured that borewell water was only used for domestic purposes, which contributes to about <5% of the total water consumption. And, only open wells were used for agriculture, which means you cannot eat into your buffer. You manage your budget based on how much rainfall you get. Similarly, other places have a Pani Panchayat (water parliament), which dictates who is allowed to grow what. Such checks and regulations are essential to maintain reserves effectively.

Your recent publication, 'The Groundwater Recovery Paradox in South India' refutes the claims of many publications that groundwater levels are increasing in south India. Where does this misunderstanding stem from?

In our field visits, we saw that groundwater levels were depleted, so we were not able to understand how these studies were finding it everywhere. This is why we began looking at the methodology of these studies. We found that of all the Central Government monitoring wells, only about 25% had long-term records. Most of the other wells had records for a few years, and when the wells went dry, new wells were put in. In South India, a vast majority of the wells (80%) had dropped out of the sample in this way. This is what we call as a survivor bias problem. In places that have shallow groundwater, the wells don’t drop out of the sample and the same monitoring wells which were there 20 years ago, are available even today. So, only a small fraction of wells have continuous records, which does not show the true picture. This is a methodological problem. 

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Measuring depth to groundwater near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

We also had a paper that came out in Current Science, which looked at the groundwater levels in hard-rock aquifer systems – which is what we have in peninsular India. Imagine that you place a piece of granite in a bowl of water and you hit it with a hammer. You will get cracks in the granite, some of which will be connected and some will not. This one block of granite would have different water levels in different cracks. This is exactly what we observed when we ran cameras down borewells, we would see water levels 200 feet below ground in one well, and 400 feet below ground in another. So when studies refer to groundwater levels in South India, they are suggesting that these wells are connected, and the levels between them are the average. That is not the case with hard-rock aquifer systems.

There is a lack of quality data and field research when it comes to comprehending the water situation. How can we make amends now that we are knee-deep in our worst water crisis in history?

Research on water in India is far behind the rest of the world. When it comes to water, you can’t conduct studies for one month and understand the entire picture, because you have wet and dry months. Additionally, for the longest time, all data was classified. Other countries have invested in experimental watersheds to understand how systems work. Since we didn’t have the culture of going out, measuring parameters and doing field research, it became an approach of computer simulation modelling. That has done us serious disservice in many ways.

The basic equations that govern water and energy balances were developed for the western world, and we just apply them. We should be looking at our own processes because our systems are unique, our watersheds are unique, and our ecosystems are unique. We need to encourage deep field research to understand what is happening here. There are a few groups that are starting to do it, with satellite imagery and some sharing of data through the World Bank and other organisations – things are looking better. The Indian water policy is also gradually opening up. But even today, crucial pieces of data are not available in the public domain.

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Veena Srinivasan and her team measuring raw sewage inflows into Bellandur Lake, Bangalore.

I think most people would say that the water problem is not an inherent problem but a mismanagement problem. Are we taking steps to address the mismanagement? No. I don't see any indications that we are making the necessary investments. We consider the problem to be an engineering problem, but you can't solve the issue with only engineering. You need to understand the ecosystem, the economy, the people, the practices; all of these things matter. People need to know where they are going wrong. 

What kind of frameworks are available to assess water utilisation so we can find more suitable solutions for the crisis?

Two frameworks are available. One is the Integrated Water Resources Management, which is recognising that we have only X amount of water, and putting in laws and policies to distribute and manage the water in the amount that is allocated. It has been around for a while. Although it sounds easy, translating this into action all around the world has been very difficult. 

The second framework is called the Adaptive Management Framework. We don't know how the climate is going to change, and how ecosystems might suddenly tip over. We have to keep watching and adjusting to these changes. For example, we have about 5000 dams in India, and we never did a single study to see if it turned out the way we expected. If it did not work out, how do we design the next dam differently – that kind of serious reflection is required to work with the changes. 

Please tell us a little bit about the Citizen Lake Dashboard Project.

There are many citizen groups in Bangalore engaged and interested in solving Bangalore's lake problem. They are able to make some changes, but they are not able to address the root cause. This is because water quality in lakes is affected by several factors such as leakage, improper drainage and other infrastructural issues. So our premise with this project was that if we make information more transparent, it would help citizen groups mobilise government agencies better. 

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Rachenahalli Lake in Thanisandra, Bangalore, managed by members of the Jalmitra Group. Photograph courtesy the Bangalore Citizen Lakes Dashboard Facebook page.

Once we started working on it, we realised that it is not that straightforward. When you look at the data, one day there is a spike in pollution, the very next day someone comes and fixes it, and then the next day a pipe is added or removed. What we expected, which was to convey a data story, was not possible. So we have evolved our objectives as well, and we are working on them. By consolidating data and gaining insight, people can take the necessary actions in a more informed manner. This is kind of where we are.