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Communities as trustees of groundwater resources: A case for decentralized response towards climate change

IWRA 2020 Online Conference - Addressing Groundwater Resilience under Climate Change
THEME 4. Groundwater Governance, Management and Policy
Author(s): V Mark Gideon

Jawaharlal Nehru University

Keyword(s): Groundwater, public trust, communities, climate change, regulation


In India, the doctrine of public trust—that is, resources are considered as a public good and a common pool resource—comes after a long period of viewing groundwater as an indispensable right of the land owner for unrestricted extraction. Furthermore, in a context where electricity supply is heavily subsidized (for irrigation purposes) and water is artificially priced low, the last few decades saw groundwater usage in India reach higher than anywhere else in the world. Climate related changes such as longer and more severe summers; shorter, intense monsoons; a gradual loss of surface water cover has also contributed towards the exponential usage of groundwater resources in India.

Admittedly the public trust doctrine was considered as a means of addressing alarming groundwater depletion levels; however, it may also allow us to place communities as central towards managing groundwater resources in the light of climate change. Managing groundwater resources is especially important due to a weak state regulatory structure where various national committees have cited the impossibility to ‘govern twenty million wells’. While a long term policy measure is hoped to address the phenomenon, communities constituting elected representatives at micro levels may provide immediate benefits. Communities – local and urban, are well placed to manage these resources, especially where the State has been unable to provide ‘last mile delivery’ of piped water access. In such cases, the government had asked such community clusters to invest in groundwater bore well connections for dinking purposes. Such connections are independently managed by communities—with little or no role of the state—resulting in judicious usage. In comparison, areas where multiple independent connections had unrestricted usage for a prolonged period of time saw a general dismal state of groundwater supply. Such homes were also noted to rely more frequently on packaged water supply. An enhancement of the public trust doctrine leading to communities managing groundwater resources, may hence prove to be beneficial.

The paper attempts to develop avenues for such decentralized participation and decision making based on the public trust principle. It is argued that this may contribute positively towards managing groundwater resources and address foreseeable challenges such as climate change.

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