Ensuring democracy
H.K. DUA, Editor-in-Chief
Reform of Parliament
Subhash C. Kashyap
Parties in disarray
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Judicial independence
Fali S. Nariman
Responsive governance
N. N. Vohra

Fighting corruption
N. Vittal

Criminalisation of politics
B.G. Verghese
Strategic vision
K. Subrahmanyam
India’s global role
M.K. Rasgotra
Neighbours and friends
S.D. Muni
Economic roadmap
Pranjoy Guha Thakurta
Energy for progress
S. K. Sharma
New agriculture
S. S. Johl
Save the cities
Water use and waste
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Science in the 21st century
R. A. Mashelkar
Lessons in education
K. N. Pathak
Empowering women
Mrinal Pande
Problem of numbers
Ashish Bose
How to protect environment
Darryl D’Monte
Health of the nation
Usha Rai

Strive for sustained supply

Ramaswamy R. IyerRamaswamy R. Iyer

The water scene in this country is profoundly disquieting. The one positive aspect that we can think of is the contribution that irrigation undoubtedly made to the Green Revolution. We can regard that as a success story, ignoring the many qualifications that need to be made. However, there is not much more to be said on the positive side. Consider the following synoptic picture:

  • Urban water supply. The state has failed to assure the availability of safe drinking water to all; what is supplied is inequitably distributed, with excessive use by some and meagre supplies to others. There is an implicit subsidisation of the rich through low water rates and an inadequate coverage of the poor by the public system, forcing them to buy water at much higher rates from private sources. There is an enormous generation of waste, with only a part of it being treated, and untreated sewage and effluents are discharged into the rivers, turning them into sewers or sources of poisoned waters.

It is the state’s duty to ensure that everybody gets enough water to meet his daily needs
BASIC RIGHT: It is the state’s duty to ensure that everybody gets enough water to meet his daily needs

  • Rural areas. There is the conundrum of constant or growing numbers of uncovered villages, i.e., villages without a nearby source of safe drinking water, despite the repeated claims of achievement of targets; and the burden of bringing water from distant sources falls on women, including girl children.

  • Major and medium irrigation projects. Maintenance is poor, systems are in disrepair, supplies are unreliable, and the service is unsatisfactory. There is a vicious circle of low water rates, poor revenues, inadequate provisions for operation and maintenance, poor service, and resistance to increases in rates.

  • Canal-irrigated agriculture. Water-use efficiency is low, yields are poor, there are inequities between head-reach and tail-end farms and between rich and poor farmers, conditions of water-logging and salinity in many areas, and so on.

  • Inter-state river water disputes. These are persistent and bitter, and tend to get enmeshed in party politics and become intractable. The constitutionally mandated conflict-resolution machinery has run into difficulties in recent years.

  • Groundwater. The explosion of groundwater use from the 1980s onwards has led to dramatic increases in production, but also to alarming depletion of the aquifers as well as their contamination. Regulation seems very difficult, if not impossible. There is also the worrying emergence of fluoride and arsenic in groundwater in different parts of the country.

  • Floods. There is a failure to evolve a strategy for coping with floods and minimising damage, and an absence of proper information systems and disaster-preparedness.

  • Drought-prone or arid areas (in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). There has been a failure to evolve area-specific answers to the problems of these regions.

  • Pollution and contamination of water sources and systems. In effect this reduces supplies by making much of the `available’ water resources unusable.

The failures are manifest. There has been a comprehensive mismanagement of water.

Looking back at the past, we can see that our thinking about water was influenced by the following factors:

  • Irrigation loomed large in our thinking, though later we began to be concerned about industrial demand as well.

  • The entire thrust in policy and planning was to make more water available for use, i.e., a supply-side response to projected or imagined demand.

  • The thinking was prima- rily in engineering terms.

The engineering-dominated, supply-side approach meant that the attention was focussed on what is referred to as ‘water resource development’; the manner in which water was used or managed received little attention. As the driving force behind that approach, which still continues, is the expectation of a crisis, and this needs to be looked at briefly.

Averting crisis

Fears of a water crisis arise from projections of future demand linked to projections of the population growth rate, pace of urbanisation and processes of economic ‘development’. The ‘demand’ should not be readily accepted; it needs to be re-examined very carefully.

The availability of canal water from major/medium projects leads to the adoption of water-intensive cropping patterns, creating demands for more water for more irrigated agriculture of the same kind. This results in projections of unsustainable future demands for water and creates scenarios of scarcity. It is this kind of competitive, unsustainable water demand that makes inter-state river-water disputes difficult to resolve. It is necessary to break free of that kind of thinking. Instead of asking for more water and still more water, the approach has to be one of getting more out of available water. That may require changes in what is grown, but even more important is the efficient use of water. If substantial improvements in yields from irrigated agriculture can be brought about, the demand for water can be significantly reduced.

In rural and urban water supply, apart from improving the efficiency of the system, it is necessary to enforce economies on those that use too much water, and improve availability to groups or areas that receive too little. If this were done, it might not be necessary to raise the average `norm’ which forms the basis of projections of water requirements; in fact, in some European cities, norms for public water supply are being reduced, not increased.

Reduce waste

In industrial use, multiple recycling and re-use needs to be insisted upon, allowing minimal make-up water: we must move towards a situation in which 90 per cent of the requirement for industry would be met through recycling. That might be very difficult today, but it must be our ultimate goal.

Finally, the amount of waste that is taking place in every use needs to be tackled: first the waste must be reduced, and secondly, a part of it must be recovered for certain uses.

On the supply side, the available water resources are measured at the terminal points of the river systems. However, what is available in nature is not just the river-flow but rainfall, which is a much larger figure.

So, prima facie, there would seem to be some scope for capturing a little more of the rainfall, in which case the available water-resource number might change.

Besides, the usable component of the available supplies could be increased not merely by storage behind a large dam, but also through storage in small water-harvesting structures, or through the re-charging of aquifers.

All these are matters for research, but in a study made for the UN University at Tokyo, Professors Kanchan Chopra and Biswnath Goldar of the Institute of Economic Growth had projected a figure of ‘additional run-off capture’ of 140 BCM.

That number may be questioned, but it suggests that this could be a significant component of water planning.

If we do all these things on the demand and supply sides, a veritable transformation of the water scene may result, and a crisis may be averted or its severity reduced. Such an approach may not eliminate the need for big projects, but it will certainly minimise that need.

Incidentally, there are only three ways in which water available for use can be augmented: rainwater harvesting, groundwater drilling and large projects (for storage, i.e., dams and reservoirs, or long-distance water transfers). Each of these would have its impact and consequences. The impact and consequences of large dams are by now fairly well known. In recent years, the reckless exploitation of groundwater and the consequent depletion and/or contamination of aquifers have begun to cause serious concern.

Rainwater harvesting has barely begun to be promoted, but some critics have already started cautioning against extensive recourse to this. Obviously, none of these possibilities on the supply side can be ruled out altogether; a wise and prudent combination of all three would need to be adopted.

ILR project

At this point a reference must be made to the controversial `Inter-Linking of Rivers’ (ILR) Project. The supporters of the project claim that it will moderate floods, provide water to thirsty areas, make a significant addition to irrigated area, help in the greening of India, create millions of jobs, provide a substantial net generation of hydro-electric power, and so on. The critics question each one of these claims, and say that the project will have serious environmental, social and human impact and consequences; that a favourable balance between these costs and the benefits arising from the project cannot be presumed but must be established link by link; that alternative ways of meeting the country’s future needs are available; and that the project is not needed at all.

It is not necessary to discuss this further here, because the present government proposes to study each link carefully and proceed cautiously and in a phased manner.

Water markets

Another response to the projections of future water needs is that the answer may be found in water markets. Along with this goes the advocacy of privatisation of water services. This approach is strongly advocated by international financial institutions, western governments and some of our own economists.

It must be noted that the argument for privatisation cannot forthwith be transferred from consumer or industrial goods to water, because the analogy is inapt: in the event of a market failure we can do without most consumer or industrial goods, or look for alternatives, but we cannot do without water and there are no substitutes for it.

Moreover, water is a basic right, and the state does have a responsibility to ensure that no one is denied this right, even if the service provision is entrusted to a private agency. Besides, the prime motive of the private corporate sector is profit, and if considerations of profitability come into conflict with other considerations, profitability will prevail; such an approach seems inappropriate in the sphere of a basic life-support resource.

It may be argued that the service can be privatised but not the resource. It is difficult to maintain that distinction. The privatisation of the water supply service may sooner or later lead to the transfer of control over the resource itself to private hands. The transfer of control structures (a dam, a barrage, a borewell or a pumping station) to a private agency, or the building of such structures by it, would give it a position of power which cannot easily be undone, and can have serious implications.

It is evident that the question bristles with difficulties. Drawing the various threads together, it is clear that water is among the most important problems facing this country. A major national effort - a multi-pronged national campaign or movement on water (encompassing both the state and civil society) - is called for. Among other things such a campaign or movement will have to:

  • Restrain and manage demand within availability.

  • Promote efficiency and economy in water-use and resource-conservation.

  • Foster a consciousness of a scarce and precious resource.

  • Facilitate the prevention or quick resolution of conflicts.

  • Promote rainwater-harvesting and micro-watershed development throughout the country to the maximum extent technically feasible without adverse effects.

  • Subject large projects, where these are found necessary, to a stringent evaluation procedure.

  • Arrest as quickly as possible the present disastrous over-exploitation of groundwater.

  • Arrest and reverse the loss of good water to pollution and contamination.

  • Bring about the necessary changes in water laws needed for all this.

  • Bring about a major transformation in the way people think about water.

Within the space of this article it is not possible to put forward detailed and specific recommendations on these matters. What one can stress is the importance of recognising that a special, exceptional effort is called for. It is of course much easier to build a dam or drill deep for water than to undertake that kind of effort, but the latter is what is needed.

— The writer is a former Secretary, Union Ministry of Water Resources.