Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

On August 9 this year, officials heaved a sigh of relief after 19.84 lakh cusecs of water was released into the Bay of Bengal, from the Dowlaisweram barrage near Rajahmundry. With this, the flooding caused by a swollen Godavari was no longer seen as a threat.

But there is the larger picture. This volume of water was the equivalent of more than 170 tmc ft of water. It would be easier to understand what this means when you compare it with what the reservoirs of large dams in India hold. For instance, the reservoir that feeds the Nagarjunasagar dam in Andhra Pradesh is considered to be one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, with a capacity of around 410 tmc ft. The Mettur dam reservoir in Tamil Nadu has a peak storage capacity of 150 tmc ft. The recent dispute between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over the Bhabhli Project was over two tmc ft of water. In this context, the volume of water that was allowed to flow out was large.

Integrated flood management

Today, a retroactive approach to flood control is no longer the option. In its report, “Dams and Development”, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) has suggested an integrated approach to flood management, and this was as early as 2000. The three-pronged strategy was through structural and non-structural means, isolating the threat of floods through structural, technological and policy alternatives; and increasing people's capacity to cope with floods.

An integrated flood management approach must look at river basins as a whole and not as individual silos at a State-level. Therefore, it is distressing to note that the latest annual report of the Ministry of Water Resources (published at its website) sanctions 281 projects (worth Rs. 2,425.50 crore) but is silent on even a single project for flood management in the Krishna or Godavari basins. In hindsight, the floods of 2009, caused by the Krishna, which devastated parts of Karnataka and the Rayalaseema regions of Andhra Pradesh, and now what happened in August, show the retroactive approach of “flood control” rather than a proactive one of “flood management” being in place.

Integrated Water Resource Management in river basins

The hurdle to an integrated water management strategy is the lack of legislation. Article 246 of the Constitution establishes the federal structure of our Government in enacting legislation. The responsibilities of the Centre are declared through a Union list. In this list, the entry 56 states: the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys is a core responsibility of the union. As 90 per cent of our rivers flow through States, it is important that there is legislation to protect the rights of all stakeholders.

The United Nations has been trying to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses to protect the rights of all stakeholders for rivers with international boundaries. It is important that the legislation enacted in India is based on similar general principles — equitable and reasonable utilisation and participation by all actors, obligation not to cause significant harm, a general obligation to cooperate, regular exchange of data and information and a notification concerning planned measures with possible adverse effects. The WCD report also warns about the risks in legislation that treat water as a finite commodity and which tries to allocate it on a proportional basis. In times of water scarcity, this approach does not give the flexibility needed to meet multiple claims along a river course. In such circumstances, it is helpful to extend sharing agreements to include the benefits, much like the 1968 Columbia Treaty between Canada and the United States.

The other area that requires attention is to move the responsibilities of managing water. There must also be a team of people — termed as the Basin Authority — that involves all stakeholders in the river-basin including governments. This is to manage water, plan future use and leverage benefits to the entire river basin. The use of Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM), as in the Murray-Darling River basin in Australia, can be sensibly applied in India only if certain prerequisites are met. These include establishing a system of licensing and registering groundwater structures, a principle of developing a “user pays, polluter pays” method at the operational level, a rationalisation of electricity pricing and supply policies for agriculture and the creation of legal frameworks to facilitate institutional reform in irrigation systems, urban and rural water supply and sanitation systems.

Other alternatives

Other arid and semi-arid regions of the world have invested heavily in storage creation; Australia, Brazil, China and the U.S. have a per capita storage capacity that is 10-30 times that of India's capacity. In India, it is a mere 200 cubic metre/person, a figure on the decline because of a growing population.

As a country, we must increase our storage to regulate the vast amount of run-off. Some of this storage, especially that created in open basins, such as the Brahmaputra, the Ganga, the Mahanadi and the Godavari, may also need to be transferred to closed basins. For many years, policy makers have been suggesting the National River Linking Project (NRLP) to help sustain India's demand for water. The NRLP plans to transfer surplus waters of the four river basins mentioned, to water scarce basins in the southern and the western parts.

For all the rhetoric for and against the NRLP, it may become necessary that we plan inter-basin water transfers to meet future needs. However, we need to ensure that there is focus on policies that concern artificial groundwater recharge, a pragmatic approach to rain water-harvesting techniques that do not compromise on downstream flows, improvement in crop productivity and agriculture diversification along with looking at alternate sources for fresh water that include the setting up of desalination plants along our coastline.

Long-term Plan: Year 2050

According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the total demand for water in India will have increased by 22 per cent by 2025, and a further eight per cent by 2050 due to population increase and lifestyle choices. It will be fuelled by industrial and domestic use even though agriculture use for irrigation is set to fall.

The challenge of increased industrial usage means that industry discharges need to be treated and reused. Policy making and planning around water resources management is complex and multi-disciplinary in nature. This work cannot be done in isolation and co-operation must ensue between disciplines.

In spite of a mandate to meet every quarter, the Committee of Environmentalists, Social Scientists and other Experts on Inter-Linking of Rivers last met in March 2010, after seven months.

It is time that the government ensured that a concrete policy evolves that aims at transforming India into a ‘Sujalam' (richly-watered), ‘Suphalam' (richly-fruited), ‘Sasya Shyamalam' (richly-harvested) country.

(G. Kishan Reddy is the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Andhra Pradesh and the floor leader of the BJP in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. The statistical, data and research inputs were provided by Yudofud Public Strategies, www.yudofud.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion