World Water Day: ICLEI South Asia’s effort to transform Integrated Urban Water Management in India

By Badri Chatterjee

Climate change has significantly impacted both the quality and quantity of water resources in South Asia, with far-reaching impacts on public health, industry, and economic productivity. It is crucial to recognise the significance of water in our lives and the impact of climate change on water resources. In the context of urban development and climate adaptation, the story of Indian cities offers valuable lessons on the importance of integrated water management.

Innovative solutions in water management have never been more urgent. As we commemorate World Water Day, it’s imperative to spotlight transformative projects that herald a new era of water stewardship. Such projects epitomise the shift towards integrated urban-rural water management, showcasing their relevance and impact in the context of climate adaptation.

For instance, Bengaluru, India’s burgeoning tech capital, currently stands as a stark reminder of how the urban water crisis is complex problem with issues ranging from improper land use, to over-extraction of groundwater, pollution of surface water – all of which are exacerbated by climate change impacts of higher temperatures and erratic rainfall. With its population projected to reach over 20 million by 2031, Bengaluru faces a dire water scarcity scenario, exacerbated by insufficient rainfall, drying borewells, and soaring costs for water tankers, with a demand far exceeding the supply.

Beyond Boundaries: Collaborative Water Management in Urban India

One of the most vital challenges associated with urban water management that has emerged from ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability South Asia’s extensive collaborations with Indian cities, is that the water resources that cities depend upon frequently lie beyond their administrative boundaries and jurisdictions. This realisation underscores a fundamental obstacle to implementing integrated urban water management (IUWM) strategies effectively.

The whole premise of integrated urban water management rests on the collaborative and integrated management of different forms of water, including freshwater, rainwater and wastewater. The division of responsibilities across various levels of government, coupled with the siloed approach to handling water supply, wastewater, and stormwater, has hindered effective water resource management and its adaptation to climate change. Local urban bodies, confined by their jurisdictional limits, often find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to harness the full potential of IUWM principles on their own.

ICLEI South Asia’s pioneering endeavours in urban water management began with the creation of the AdoptIUWM toolkit, designed to forge integrated urban water management plans. Collaborating with diverse partners, this toolkit was deployed in four Indian cities: Jaisalmer and Kishangarh in Rajasthan; Solapur and Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra, aiming to revolutionise water resource management. Despite these efforts, the initiative encountered a critical barrier: the city governments’ limited jurisdiction over external water resources hindered the full implementation of necessary water management interventions. This challenge underscored the complex interplay between administrative boundaries and water resource management and called for a broader, more inclusive approach that transcends boundaries, which is essential for sustainable urban water governance.

IAdapt: Pioneering Integrated Water Management

Recognising these challenges, the Integrated Rural Urban Water Management for ClimateBased Adaptations in Indian Cities (IAdapt) project, implemented by ICLEI South Asia and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), introduced a comprehensive framework aimed at transforming traditional water management paradigms.

This project, in collaboration with Athena Infonomics, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, focussed on water resource management at a catchment level, moving from conventional, siloed water management practices towards an integrated approach.

Implemented in Solapur, Maharashtra, and Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, IAdapt embodies the principles of IUWM and Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), enabling cities to tackle the impacts of climate change on water resources.

By fostering participatory catchment planning through multi-stakeholder Rural Urban (RURBAN) platforms, developing simple decision-support tools, and executing catchment-level action plans, IAdapt sought to institutionalise climate change adaptation measures in water management. The project is distinguished by its focus on participatory governance and climate-informed decision-making, showcasing a shift towards catchment-based approaches to water management that are vital for water security and climate resilience​​.

Through strategic partnerships, rigorous research, and community engagement, the project crafted a roadmap for sustainable water resource management, emphasising participatory catchment planning and innovative financing mechanisms.

RURBAN: Facilitating Rural-Urban Water Synergy

Meanwhile, the RURBAN Platform, conceptualised as part of the IAdapt project, served as a novel collaborative multi-stakeholder forum that embodies a holistic approach to water governance and a strategic move towards catchment-level water management, transcending traditional barriers between rural and urban management.

At its core, the platform champions the ethos of collective stewardship over shared water resources, ensuring equitable outcomes for all stakeholders involved. By bringing together urban and rural entities, both governmental and non-governmental, the RURBAN Platform fostered debate, negotiation, and partnership on integrated water management in the context of climate change. It meticulously addresses the requirements across diverse sectors—ranging from water and wastewater to stormwater, industry, agriculture, public health, economy, and ecology—aiming to prevent any group from bearing a disproportionate share of the climate burden.

Ensuring that water management strategies are inclusive, equitable, and capable of securing water resources against the uncertainties of climate change, the RURBAN initiative emerges as a paradigm of participatory and integrated water governance, fostering shared responsibility and collective action. Its success in Indian cities illustrates its adaptability and potential applicability across South Asia, showcasing a scalable model for collaborative water management.

The Transformation in Solapur and Vijayawada

Solapur and Vijayawada cities embraced the five-step IAdapt Framework for participatory planning of water resources at the catchment level, supported by a RURBAN platform that promoted sustainable water management practices that benefit all. The framework helped the cities prepare integrated water management plans that effectively address challenges like water scarcity, pollution, and natural disasters.

Key accomplishments include the establishment of RURBAN platforms to develop catchment level, climate-adaptive, water management plans to enable these cities to collaborate with their neighbouring villages to manage their water resources more cohesively. This strategic approach, exemplified through pilot projects in selected micro-catchments, demonstrates a commitment to IUWM principles and marks a significant move towards catchment-based and climate-resilient water resource management.

Impact and Future Directions

The formalisation of the RURBAN platform and the implementation of IAdapt framework across more Indian cities could significantly change the management of water resources, through a more collaborative, efficient, and climate-resilient approach that adopts the no-harm principle of sustainable development.

Bengaluru’s plight serves as a stark reminder of the broader water crisis faced by urban areas worldwide, and highlights the urgent need for integrated water management strategies. The RURBAN platform and IAdapt framework offer valuable lessons and hope in the context of climate adaptive water management.

Innovative platforms are indispensable in the quest to secure our water future, serving as key catalysts in transforming cities into resilient and sustainable spaces in an era marked by climate change. By fostering collaboration, leveraging technology, and integrating diverse stakeholders’ perspectives, these platforms lay the foundation for comprehensive water management strategies. They not only address current vulnerabilities but also anticipate future needs, ensuring that urban environments can thrive despite the evolving climatic challenges.

Badri Chatterjee is a Senior Communications Manager at ICLEI South Asia. 

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