Perspectives On Water:
Constructing Alternative Narratives
ONE of the reasons for the continued existence of great civilisations in South Asia has been the easy availability of water. With an increase in population and increased energy use in the past 100 years, however, there have been reports of water shortages everywhere. People and states have begun to fight over water as never before. Within South Asia, India alone has 16 per cent of the population of the world and 15 per cent of the livestock of the world, living in just 2.45 per cent of the land area with access to a mere four per cent of the usable water resources of the world. A third of the country lies in rain shadow areas, where no big civilisation developed till a century ago. But today these areas demand as much water as the water-rich river basin culture.
Under the circumstances, the present book is most welcome. It brings together some sane voices in the discourse on water. They go beyond the usual rhetoric of government and eco-do-gooders to provide a glimpse into what is possible for the future. The strongest point of the 13 essays included here is that they uniformly look back into history in order to make their point. Unfortunately, the volume is priced so high as to keep it out of reach of most interested users.
The historical perspective is far more informative than currently presumed. By localising issues, it enables movement beyond trite and superficial supposedly universal solutions that really don't work in any specific context. The Mughals were the first in world history to implement large-scale modern irrigation schemes. Unfortunately, the historians of medieval India have left this area of research almost entirely untouched.
In the event when the governments of India and Pakistan sat down to frame the Indus Water Treaty, they behaved almost as if that entire past did not exist. The result was a treaty heavily dominated by military concerns, with little focus on the economic use of the rivers. Rohan D'Souza, Maaz Gardezi, Inderjeet Singh and A K Jain between them provide a historical overview of the use of water in the Indus Basin. Muhammad Shah provides an interesting essay on the historical lessons learnt from the floods of 2010 in the Indus river, wherein he argues about the effect that an inequitable social structure has on the use of river waters and the consequent "natural disaster" that hurt lower strata of society far more than the exploiters at the top.
Inderjeet Singh and A K Jain in their respective essays on the use of water in Punjab reiterate the important issues about the rampant misuse of water in Indian Punjab that is currently resulting in a health disaster for the population at large.
Shantha Mohan and Sailen Routray address that scenario to delineate the contours of conflict and possible cooperation between states in south Asia over the use of water.
Uwe Hoering, Yu Li and Shailaja Fennell's essays look a little forced into this volume since they deal with non-South Asian experiences. On balance, they do provide interesting insights into how other regions of the world deal with water stress that follows intensive development.
Unfortunately, Hoering repeats ideas about balancing private-public partnership in water usage without recognising that throughout history water usage has only been regulated by the public, represented by the state. The nature of water and its usage for human beings is such that any private regulation only creates yet another state-like authority. Shawahiq Siddqui looks into the legal perspectives on water usage.
It is not easy to create a legal framework for balancing the conflicting claims on rightful water use by different communities and interest groups. State authorities have been ranging around for a meaningful solution with little success, mostly because they refuse to consider the efficient use of water an important factor in deciding competing claims. Under the circumstances, Siddiqui leaves this unsaid, we are rapidly moving towards a time when there would be a tremendous shortage of water. Currently only individuals resort to violence to claim superior privilege in the use of water. Soon enough states might resort to violence as well.