Act before water stress undermines social stability
B.G. Verghese

Scientists are looking for water on Mars and other celestial bodies to establish the existence of life even as our Planet Earth enters into a new phase of water stress and uncertainty. Climate change now threatens earlier verities and lifestyles. The worst dangers may be staved off but only if all of mankind makes a concerted effort to avert a looming catastrophe.

India confronts this challenge acutely because of its tropical location, burgeoning population and wasteful water use, around 85 per cent, poorly managed, being devoted to low-yield farming. Traditional systems of water harvesting were more careful; but even so, over large parts of the country the notion of a bountiful and unfailing monsoon has conditioned individual and political attitudes premised on the notion that more storages can augment supplies ad infinitum and that better farming entails more water. Such fallacies die hard. The excessive prioritisation of irrigation at the cost of other non-farm uses also needs to be questioned.

Irrigation is obviously important for agricultural productivity and stabilisation and farming over wider areas no more a gamble in the monsoon. Yet, despite the manifold expansion of irrigated farming to perhaps the largest gross acreage in the world, almost 60 per cent of the sown area remains rain-fed. Storage has played a key role in redistributing the monsoon in view of its skewed and erratic occurrence over space and time. Large rain shadow areas and dry lands exist and meteorological records show that despite a 100-day monsoon, precipitation is largely limited to some 45 days and within this period, the bulk of the rain falls within l00 hours. If not trapped behind dams and bandhs, small and large, the runoff will flow destructively, causing erosion and flood in its wake. The parched earth absorbs moisture but, once saturated, with aquifers full, surface runoff gathers momentum.

Forest and vegetative matter through micro and macro watershed management can stem erosion and assist percolation to augment underground storage. The hydrological cycle too needs to be better understood. Surface and ground water constitute parts of a single system and, in more arid zones, a good part of the available groundwater comes from irrigation recharge, making conjunctive use an integral and important part of both irrigation and drainage.

Famine being away of life in the days of the Raj, independent India gave high importance to harnessing its great rivers. The first two or three plans had a high component of multipurpose river projects like Bhakra that Nehru called temples of modern India. Many today scoff at this label but these projects laid the foundation of Indiaís economic growth and the first green revolution.

Being low on the learning curve, rehabilitation was not done with adequate care or compassion and led to unrequited displacement, especially of tribal peoples whose homelands and livelihoods in the hills and forest of headwater streams were necessarily inundated. Administrative and political understanding of environmental impacts was also limited and it is only over the past 30 years that this has been factored in. Yet, dams continue to be necessary.

Almost a third of Indiaís water is locked in the Northeast and remains dormant and even destructive unless it can be harnessed and much of it transferred to the heartland in view of the Northeastís own limited water and energy requirements. Yet, despite the fact that India is one of the largest dam builders in the world, its topography is such that one single Kariba dam on the Zambezi in southern Africa has a storage capacity of 180 billion cubic metre or equivalent to all of Indianís 4000 plus "large dams" constructed until around 2004!

However, it is easier to engineer dams than to manage complex water systems that entail multiple institutions and interests and multitudes of individual actors. Unfortunately, the countryís water sector is directed and manned by engineers, who have most often done a splendid construction job, but remain supply-side people in a highly political water environment.

Cropping patterns and water pricing are politically decided. This has often meant dictation on the basis of relative power and influence rather than that of need and prudence. Hence, endless paddy-wheat, paddy-paddy-paddy or paddy-cane cropping cycles that are highly water consumptive and exhaust the soil, as in Punjab-Haryana-West UP, the peninsular delta regions, and Mandya district in Karnataka. This is encouraged by very low or no water and electricity charges (in the name of poor farmers), overuse of groundwater, and poor maintenance and drainage.

The Agricultural Costs and Prices Commissionís minimum price support awards render these the most profitable packages, despite urgent calls for crop diversification, especially in view of the added bonuses that State governments invariably offer to woo the (rich) farm vote. The result has been mining of water, poor maintenance and consequent reduced efficiency, waterlogging and salinity, bankrupt state electricity boards and, until recently, overflowing godowns with rotting grain on account of inadequate offtake or export possibilities (unless subsidised) while millions go hungry. Rotting grain is no different from wasting water.

Northwest India needs to diversity into other high value, low water use, labour intensive crops with food processing for value addition and leave it to eastern Gangetic India with its relative water abundance, good soil, ample sunlight and yield potential to produce the grain the country needs. Water management, drainage, agrarian relations and land consolidation in the Sharda-Sahayak, Gandak and Kosi project commands could be transforming.

Sardar Sarovar represents a fine concept that has been well engineered but must now be saved from powerful interlopers who would depart from optimally conceived command area parameters to capture large gains for sectional and unplanned local benefit.

The country must move purposefully towards demand management of water across the board. This has to include pricing, cropping patterns, modernisation, use of technologically superior methodologies like sprinkler and drip irrigation, more effective tillage practices, conservation and recycling, pollution control, all methods of water harvesting from micro to macro and watershed management. The private sector has been brought in but there is scope for much more community involvement in management and monitoring through panchayat and cooperative systems or otherwise.

Groundwater regulation is necessary and recharge systems must be incentivised. There is no dichotomy between large and micro efforts. Rainwater and rooftop harvesting is necessary; so too are medium, large and even mega dams, sensibly designed, as well as trans-boundary or inter-basin transfers.

Regrettably the so-called Inter-Linking of Rivers concept, wrongly named and hijacked as a political package, inevitably ran into avoidable opposition, domestic and international, and was all but aborted just as it was beginning to take some shape. What the ILR sought to accomplish was sustainable national water security with regional equity.

Since the Ganga and Brahmaputra are international basins it was absolutely essential to consult with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh to assure them of no-harm and, indeed, mutual benefit. This was not done for the most frivolous reasons resulting in deep suspicion and anger all round. The opportunity for moving from administrative jurisdictions to river basins or natural resource regions for planning, and winning consensus across political divides, was lost.

So also of creatively exploring the idea of water markets within a regulatory framework that protects weaker populations and user sectors across riparian and non-riparian, catchment and command jurisdictions and irrigation, drinking water, ecological, fishery, industrial, municipal supply, recreational, navigation and other boundaries.

France has a system of water parliaments while NGOs have experimented with micro water parliaments and panchayats in India, with some success. If India is to grow at 9 to 10 per cent per annum and people are to enjoy a superior though not ostentatious quality of life, irrigation consumption must fall to about 60 per cent of water use for the new agriculture envisaged, with larger diversions for other uses including sanitation, industry and ecology. In 30 years from now, a majority of the population will be living in urban India, dependent on industry and services.

New norms of R&R are evolving. Land for land is no more viable and the concepts of displaced and project-affected persons are getting amplified to include livelihood and cultural losses. In situ rehabilitation can be far more effective. Area development and training for exploiting the opportunities inherent in new land use patterns and tourism and industrial opportunities from the availability of cheap hydro energy and water offer exciting and hugely profitable alternatives.

For optimal utilisation of its water resources, India must cooperate with its riparian neighbours. Indo-Bhutanese cooperation offers an excellent model. Tragically, Indiaís political relations with Nepal and Bangladesh have been frayed and riddled with suspicion. Hopefully, this is in the process of changing.

Nepalís vast hydro potential cannot be developed without feeding into the Indian energy and water market. Likewise, the Northeastís water and energy bounty cannot be optimally or cost-effectively developed without its transfer and transmission through Bangladesh to the Indian heartland. This is an aspect of transit that Indian policy makers have simply ignored.

With a new deep-sea port planned in Bengal, Calcutta can abandon pretensions to being a great ocean outlet and reinvent itself as a bustling river and coastal cargo port. This transformation will render surplus 20-25,000 cusecs of Ganga water impounded at Farakka and currently used to flush the Bhagirathi river to maintain drafts at Calcutta. Some of this can be diverted to Banlgadesh as part of a cooperative arrangement with that country for joint harnessing of the Lower Ganga and Brahpmaputra/Barak basins in which Nepal and Bhutan would be natural partners as well.

One can also contemplate tapping the mighty Brahmaputra U-bend from Tibet to Assam dropping some 7500 feet to generate 40-50,000 MW of clean hydro energy through a joint project with China.

Climate change is upon us as witnessed by glacier melt, aberrant rainfall and related events. This natural phenomenon does not respect boundaries and there is much the countries in the region, including Pakistan, can do jointly to monitor, mitigate and manage the transition to a new and uncertain hydrological regime.

As between India and Pakistan the time is ripe to negotiate an Indus-II agreement on the foundations of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Dr Manmohan Singh has signalled his willingness to walk that road. His Look East Policy should make him simultaneously turn his gaze towards the latent potential of the Ganga and Brahmaputra/Barak basins that await mutual exploitation. Weather forecasting and disaster management are areas that cry out for cooperation.

All said, a new water vision will require a new orientation to the administrative and technical structures and personnel of the Water Resources Ministry in the Centre and the States that are presently fragmented and staffed to deliver 19th century supply side programmes. This has to change.

Economists, sociologists, ecologists, scientists, bankers and a host of others, drawn from a variety of disciplines, have to be brought together in a new technological era to deliver the future. Climate change should propel early action before intolerable water stress unravels social stability and orderly progress.

The writer is former Editor, Hindustan Times and Indian Express, and eminent columnist