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Thursday, June 4, 2009

People need to be involved in the protection of water around them’

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Professor, Centre for Development and Environment Policy, IIM Calcutta, talks about how the survival of water in the country depends on our sincerity to ecology, and inclusive approach

 Areport of the UNDP on India's water starts with the observation that "ever since independence, poor Indians have been promised free safe household water". In terms of number of billionaires, India's place is near the top in the world. With more than 225 million people having no access to safe drinking water after 62 years of Independence, India is also at the top in another world ranking according to some reports.
    Provision of safe drinking water to all should be a non-negotiable priority for the Indian state to protect the citizens' right to life. It is a real shame that though the domestic water needs are the smallest of all water requirements in terms of quantity, the satisfaction of this crucial need of all people will be celebrated as a virtual human right, in World Water Day events, international seminars and political statements.
    The arrival of RCC technology and human ability to pump groundwater made it possible for us to intervene in the surface and ground-water on a very large scale. Storage and transfer of very large volumes of water from lakes, rivers and aquifers have been as much a backbone for the industrial societies as the fossil fuels. The rapid financial gains made from the use of such huge volumes of water made water a fuel for economic growth and led to widespread competition for and conflicts over it. Thus was born in the public mind the economic entity called 'water resource'.
    Domestic supplies now have to compete with other demands on this resource. Recent economic history is also an account of growing human interferences in the lakes, rivers and aquifers of the world.
    For India, out of the total annual precipitation of about 4000 billion cubic meters (BCM), the officially assessed annual availability of water is about 1120 BCM. This
provides for an annual per capita availability of less than 1000 CuM, an amount that borders on a state of scarcity, according to international perceptions. With this annual amount, domestic needs, water for food production, industrial activities and cultural requirements are to be met. In doing so, water engineers in India have exhausted many rivers and aquifers, leaving little water for dilution of pollution or to satisfy all the needs of environmental flows for the aquatic ecosystems.
    In the climatic condition of India dominated by acute spatial and temporal inequities in precipitation, the national averages do not bring out the stark realities of smaller regions with water extremes. The rainfall distribution over India is highly uneven over space and time.
    Then we have the great tragedy of the groundwater commons! Ownership of groundwater being
treated as private, totally unsustainable extraction of water, for both irrigation and industry, has deprived large areas of Peninsular India of water from easily accessible aquifers. The traditional knowledge base with which water governance is practiced in India finds it easier to declare water scarcities or excesses as 'natural disasters'. Before blaming nature for the growing water scarcity, we need to find the devil within ourselves. If the water business goes on as usual, inefficient use of water and conflicts over it will continue unabated.
    In order to ensure that the vital ecosystem processes and related services can continue, serious attention to ecosystem research and ecological management of water systems will be needed. Otherwise, with the rivers and lakes turning to mere drainages for pollutants and wastes, groundwater quickly moving away from the humans and global warming changing the precipitation patterns and eating into the stock of glacial waters in the Himalayas, India will be in trouble with the business as usual mode of water management.
    India simply cannot continue with the traditional and simplistic approach to water management in the future years. The urgent need for change has been flagged by many independent water professionals and social movements, but the political leadership and the governments have resisted much needed reforms in water engineering and management. People need to be involved in the management and protection of water around their habitats. Irrigation systems or municipal infrastructures need not be managed exclusively by the engineers.
    An important opportunity has arrived for betterment of ecological knowledge on water systems through the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Activities of the National Water Mission within that Action Plan has addressed the
very crucial task for understanding the impacts of climate change on India's water systems and preparing the country to adapt to possible changes in the climate.
    Such scientific initiatives are urgently needed but will be successful only with a wider ecolog
ical knowledge base. Water future of India is in the hands of our people, water professionals, the business sector and the government. Only wise and unselfish action by all of them can regain the country's status as sujalang.

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