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Updated: February 8, 2010 21:44 IST

Water, aspirations, nature

Ramaswamy R. Iyer
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The fact that we must try to minimise the need for water supply augmentation by limiting the growth of its demand in every kind of use has not been widely recognised.

WATER: With the nation heading towards a water crisis, it is necessary to save every drop.
The Hindu WATER: With the nation heading towards a water crisis, it is necessary to save every drop.

T.N. Narasimhan’s cautionary and wise article ‘Towards sustainable water management’ in the issue of January 25, 2010 of The Hindu needs to be read widely and reflected upon. The present article takes off from that article and pushes its logic a bit further.

Predictions of water scarcity or a water crisis arise from estimates of water availability and projections of future demand. In recent years, some scholars have questioned the official estimates of water availability in India, and there have been no satisfactory official replies. However, even if the availability of water for use were closer to the official figure of around 1,000 BCM than to the critics’ lower number of 600 BCM, we still face a difficult future because of projected demand. That is where the problem lies.

The general tendency is to attribute the expected water crisis to the projected growth of population. Undoubtedly, more people in India or the world will mean more water requirements. However, if we are thinking only of basic water requirements (drinking, cooking, personal hygiene, etc) or even water for sustenance livelihoods, the pressure on water resources may not assume crisis proportions. It is the other uses (economic or ‘developmental’, going beyond livelihoods) — agriculture, industry, commerce, tourism, urban water supply and sanitation systems, etc, — that generate unmanageable demands for water.

How are we to deal with those demands? The tendency in the past was to accept the demands as given and find supply-side answers (dams- reservoirs-canals; drilling for groundwater, etc). It is only in recent years that we have begun to recognise that there are limits to the augmentation of supplies; that even the augmentation that is technically feasible has economic, environmental, ecological, social and human costs; and that we must try to minimise or at least reduce the need for such augmentation by limiting the growth of demand for water in every kind of water-use. Unfortunately, that recognition is not widespread.

At the heart of the numerous water-related conflicts lies a competitive, unsustainable demand for water. We are asking for water that does not exist. The availability of waters from the Bhakra Nangal project led to the cultivation of paddy in Punjab and Haryana, resulting in a constant demand for ever more water and still more water. That kind of water-intensive irrigation was then extended to the desert State of Rajasthan, generating an unsustainable demand for water there. The stated water needs of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu add up to two Cauverys. At the inter-country level, the combined (claimed) requirements of India/Pakistan and those of India/Bangladesh would need two Indus Rivers and two Ganga Rivers respectively. Should we not seek a way out of this insanity?

Restraining the growth of demand for water is of course not an approach that can be applied to basic needs, but it can and must be adopted in the case of all other water uses. Enhancing the efficiency of water–use in agriculture and industry, improvements in yield or output, minimization of waste in all uses, are objectives on which there will be no disagreement. However, if we do all this, will the projected crisis be averted or even reduced significantly in severity? Assuming that through these means we are able to bring the projection of future requirements (in 2050) down from around 1000 BCM to say, 800 BCM, that will not be a negligible achievement, but it may not avert a crisis; it will merely postpone it.

It follows that efficiency plus economy plus technology will indeed do some good but will not go far enough; a more radical transformation of approach to water-use and of our thinking about water will be needed. Narasimhan is right when he says that “even with the best of available technologies, the finiteness and unpredictable variability of water resource systems place severe limits on human aspirations for prosperity”. However, even that wise statement retains traces of old-style thinking. We need to deconstruct the term ‘human aspirations’. (We are inevitably making a transition here from water to a larger theme; we cannot talk about the demand for water without talking about the demands for many other things.)

There are two points to be noted in this context.

First, is there not a dualism here? We seem to be thinking of aspirations as arising autonomously in the human breast without reference to external factors, and as then being limited/constrained by nature, ecology and planet earth. Would it not be more appropriate for human aspirations to spring from and be in harmony with nature, ecology and Planet Earth?

Secondly, no one will question the desire to meet basic needs of water and sanitation; but we run into difficulties when we start talking about ‘human aspirations for prosperity’. Narasimhan has of course avoided the term ‘development’ and used the more modest term ‘prosperity,’ but to most people the latter term would mean the former. Whether we talk about prosperity or development, our visions are coloured by what we see in Europe and America. All countries aspire to reach the condition of America. Is that desirable, feasible or sustainable? In the climate change negotiations, the developing countries quite rightly blame the western countries for having pursued a developmental path that has cast a heavy burden of depletion, pollution and contamination on Planet Earth, but then proceed to assert their own right to embark on the same destructive path. Let us ask ourselves whether it is nature that constrains our aspirations, or our aspirations that are destructive of nature.

Finally, we must take note of the argument of ‘realism’. In the international context, America does not want to change its lifestyle; the “American way of life” is sacrosanct. Unfortunately, it is a beacon to the ‘developing’ world. In India, there is a good deal of impatience with environmental concerns and accusations of ‘eco-fundamentalism’; ‘development’ on the lines of the west is the paramount concern. Any talk of radical changes or of re-defining ‘development’ is apt to be dismissed as negative or naïve. EIAs have been reduced to a mockery. There are persistent efforts to weaken the Environment Protection Act. Against that background, what receptivity can this article or Narasimhan’s expect?

If we must accept that argument of realism, then let us stop talking about sustainability, give up wringing our hands in despair, embrace ‘development’ ardently, and march gloriously towards whatever lies in store for us. Let us push growth further relentlessly and let the boom go bust, if that is what is going to happen. Let humanity end not with a whimper but a bang. This article will end with that ‘modest proposal’. The phrase is borrowed from the 18th Century Irish satirist Swift; intrigued readers can look it up wherever they look things up: the library or the internet.

Correction

In connection with the last line in an article “Water, aspirations, nature” (Op-Ed, February 5, 2010), its author Ramaswamy R. Iyer says: “The full title of [18th Century Irish satirist] Swift’s pamphlet (1729) is ‘A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick’. The ‘modest proposal’ was that the children should be sold to the rich as food. By citing that pamphlet, the last paragraph of the article was intended to be a piece of grim irony.

“In the penultimate line, the phrase ‘not with a whimper but a bang’ was an inversion of the last line of T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’.”

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