In a mid-term review, the Planning Commission calls for a holistic approach to water management, based on the hydrologic cycle in place of the silos into which the resource has been divided.

In the Planning Commission's 11th mid-term appraisal report, Chapter 21 is devoted to Water Resources. Recognising that the problems in this area appear more serious than originally assessed, the appraisal calls for a holistic approach based on the science of the hydrologic cycle, to supplant the many different administrative compartments into which water management is currently divided. The salient findings of the report include the unsustainable depletion of groundwater caused by a progressive shift over the past decades from the use of surface water to more conveniently accessible groundwater; poor project formulation coupled with shortfalls in the Central government's support to enhance realisation of the irrigation potential; and the need for cautionary diligence before embarking on the ambitious project to interlink rivers. In conclusion, the report urges the implementation of the widely spelt remedial measures to protect water quantity and quality. It also recommends that rain-harvesting be enhanced, artificial recharge structures energised, water-use efficiency improved, and treatment and reclamation of urban waste water bettered.

As a planning document, the report aptly focusses on how existing water-use methods can be improved and enhanced through monetary and administrative reforms. The report defers unitary treatment of the hydrological cycle to the 12th Five-Year Plan. Even so, it is pertinent to examine what is involved in taking a holistic hydrologic-cycle view of the issue.

Factor of uncertainty

Perhaps the starting point is to recognise that the water over India is a finite, limited resource with uncertain annual variability. As such, it is to be monitored and managed on various spatial and temporal scales. Thus, the overall task is fundamentally “resource-limited.” In other words, the nature of the resource is no more an externality. Traditional practices of using the most convenient source available were “policy-limited” in the sense that when water was assumed to be freely available, policy would encourage the use of the most convenient source. Given this perception, what needs to be done is to effect an orderly transition from a “policy-limited” mind-set to one of “resource-limited” mind-set. This perspective provides a context to examine what a “holistic view of the hydrologic cycle” entails.

Given a watershed or a river basin of appropriate scale of interest, a water budget allowing for evapo-transpiration and environmental flows, limits utilisable water to about 15 per cent of the total annual precipitation. This includes surface water and groundwater, including artificial recharge and rain-harvesting. Since surface water and groundwater are essentially components of the same resource, it would appear prudent not to separate them any longer. This notion is already central to the oft-declared conjunctive strategy of water management. Within the constraint of this water availability, we have to fit in all the extant water use and distribution structures — public, private, and cooperative — to optimise its use among the stake-holders. Deceptively simple in logic, this is a daunting, formidable challenge that confronts all segments of India's society, from the lay person to state functionaries and learned academies. The quality of their individual and collective responses to this fundamental issue will determine the quality of adaptation to the scenarios of severe scarcity that are unfolding.

In order to improve the chances of a transition happening from the silos to the hydrologic-cycle perspective, informed debates involving earth scientists and engineers are essential. They should present knowledge bases for decision options, among social scientists and administrators who formulate policies, and among citizens in general, who by the dint of intuitive visualisation and experience of the impact of these policies, may contribute wisdom. Such wide-ranging discourses are indispensable to define the collective and differentiated responsibilities of the various segments of society, in a common bid to conserve and safeguard the integrity of a resource that is vital for human survival. Yet, the Planning Commission's report devotes attention primarily to administrative and financial reforms, which by themselves will hardly help change the status quo. Can the country wait until the next Plan to consider the imperatives of a unitary hydrological cycle to guide its course?

National water policy

Indeed, one may argue that the time to act is now, especially in view of the Water Mission statement issued by the Prime Minister's Climate Council in May 2010. That statement envisages a national water policy being put in place by 2013. Should not that goal be coordinated with the Planning Commission's plans for the immediate future?

It is also relevant to consider the role of the Central government in the light of a unitary hydrological cycle. The Commission's report accepts the extant policy of water being a State subject, continuing in perpetuity. This implicitly relegates the Centre's role to merely providing monetary incentives for growth. However, based on developments relating to water policy in the European Union and other countries, one may visualise that the Centre has a far more important role to play in providing a heavy philosophical anchor that will give character to a national water policy as envisaged in the Water Mission. Elsewhere, we have emphasised the high desirability of a Constitutional mandate on water that would re-examine existing laws and policy to creatively respond to the new knowledge of water science that has been gained since their initial formulation.

Earth-related knowledge

So, it would be disheartening if India chooses to defer action in grappling with the complex task of water management that demands participation by the various segments of its diverse society. At an infrastructure level, the time is now to build institutions and training facilities to monitor complex earth systems, disseminate information on a real-time basis, and equally important, carry out research on understanding, and adapting to, these systems to delineate policy options that may become the basis for future legislative and regulatory acts. There are serious concerns that earth-related knowledge is lagging behind the physical and biological sciences in India.

India's vision for food security and economic security will be in jeopardy without the availability of stabilised water supplies over the coming years. For India's gifted and the bright, the most challenging future lies in advancing knowledge and understanding of the complex web of earth resource systems, water, land and the biological habitat through which matter and energy flow incessantly to restore equilibrium, and in the process, fashion the environment in which everyone lives and breathes. The task is formidable, but this is a challenge that India shares with many other countries. There are opportunities for creative thinking and breakthroughs that may enable India to provide world leadership. Much will depend on how the country's leadership, and those who help fashion policies, choose to act.

(T.N. Narasimhan is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley (tnnarasimhan@LBL.gov). Vinod K. Gaur is with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the CSIR Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, Bangalore (gaur@cmmacs.ernet.in).)

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