Wennersten belongs to a generation that believes water is a public good
Issues and problems concerning water are increasingly becoming matters of great concern to developing countries. That they are equally important to prosperous nations too has been amply brought out by the book under review. John R. Wennersten, author of the book and environmental historian, has shown that problems of water have global dimensions and there is no space for the business-as-usual approach towards them.
Dealing with a broad canvas of the subject lucidly and insightfully, the author has touched upon various aspects — availability, quality, competing needs of different sectors, disputes over water and the application of the concept of privatisation. While discussing them, Wennersten has attempted to be as exhaustive as possible. Though his home country — United States — keeps coming up in the book, he has written about situations as diverse as in India, Australia and Nigeria. He has also talked about disturbing trends in Europe such as pollution of the Po River in Italy and the Volga River in Russia. He has not left out droughts or grave challenges that the world may have to face due to climate change. Yet, the author is not pessimistic. He has given his ideas and suggestions to overcome the problems, even though one may not agree with them completely.
The striking aspect of the book is that it highlights how certain attitudes towards water are universal. While commenting on the water crisis of India, the author has made these suggestions: water conservation, rainwater harvesting, regulation of groundwater and treating human, agricultural and industrial waste effectively, all of which are not unknown to Indian experts. But, what is pertinent here is that he has noted that even in Western nations, such strategies encounter difficulty while being implemented.
Though he is correct in concluding that “increasing urbanisation, population growth and political ineptitude” may lead to worsening of India’s water problems, his assessment that the country’s problems are those of quality, not quantity is debatable. A vast nation such as India is full of inter-State and intra-State variations in water availability. There are certain regions that are chronically water deficient. It is to address this problem that the option of inter-basin water transfer is suggested; and where it does not involve adverse environmental impacts, it can be pursued.
The author has elaborately quoted a study by a group of researchers on the Union government’s interlinking project and on many a count, the criticism of the proposed project is justified. But, what he has failed to acknowledge is that there are success stories too. To give examples, the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project and Krishna Water Supply Project, both implemented in the last 50 years, have demonstrated how beneficial they can be to water-deficit regions of Tamil Nadu.
On the issue of privatisation and the presence of big corporate players in the water sector, Wennersten’s analysis is profound and has some relevance to India. He belongs to a generation of people who subscribe to the theory that water is a public good. But, of late, the concept of water as a private resource for sale is catching on even in India. He has rightly pointed out the worrying trend of declining investment of the U.S. federal government in the public water business over the last 30 years and given an example of California, where citizen groups have been protesting against the move to increase water price steeply after the entry of a giant private player.
Wennersten has made the book more readable through his references, imaginatively and appropriately deployed, to literary and creative works such as “Moby Dick” and “There Will Be Blood” besides drawing an analogy to the idea of Agastiya, a Hindu sage who, legend has it, had swallowed seven seas.
There is one significant factual inaccuracy in the book. Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophical Society, has been identified as a German but she was a Russian.
This apart, the author’s overall analysis of water issues may, in some places, appear to be extremely disturbing but it represents harsh reality.