A major shift in perception of national water policy

T.N. Narasimhan
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THE ISSUE: India faces the task of a transition from an infrastructure of existing water structures to making them part of a watershed-based local management system. – PHOTO: U. SUBRAMANYAM
THE ISSUE: India faces the task of a transition from an infrastructure of existing water structures to making them part of a watershed-based local management system. – PHOTO: U. SUBRAMANYAM

In the article “Approach to new national water policy”, its author Ramaswamy R. Iyer (Editorial page, October 29, 2010) argues eloquently for a departure from incrementally building on the Ministry of Water Resources' National Water Policy of 2002 to a holistic approach starting from scratch. At its core, the new approach recognises that water availability is finite and variable, and that economic growth is incompatible with limited water availability. Painful choices are to be made in sharing the vital resource under an overarching philosophy of ecological health and social justice, guided by Gandhiji's dharma of balancing rights with responsibility. In the new approach, mega projects will play a subordinate role, with water management being implemented at local levels.

Placed in context, Mr. Iyer's approach signals an unmistakable shift from a supply-demand mindset to holistic science-based management. In its mid-term appraisal report of the XIth Plan, the Planning Commission recognised, based on persuasive scientific evidence, that India's water situation is even more serious than originally assessed, and concluded that a solution cannot be found unless “we can come out of the silos into which we have divided water and take a holistic view of the hydrological cycle”. In May, the Prime Minister's Climate Council presented its Water Mission to the people, suggesting that water conservation should be a people's movement in India, and that all water data be in the public domain to mobilise citizens, and local and State governments for dedicated actions on water conservation and augmentation. The mission also envisions an approved National Water Policy in place by 2013.

Considering that Mr. Iyer is a former Secretary of Water Resources, it is clear that there is a definite shift in perception of a national water policy at the highest levels of governance. The shift eschews supply-demand philosophy, embracing, instead, science-based management with people's participation at various levels of decision-making. The new vision is radical, and introduces extraordinary challenges to get a National Water Policy approved by 2013.

The challenges

Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting the new approach concerns adaptation to limited water availability, and wean away from an aspiration for growth. The concept is deceptively simple, but the political difficulties involved are enormous. Will there be a will to find a way out?

The second challenge confronting the new approach concerns “local management”, which may be understood differently by different people. In the context of holistic management based on the hydrological cycle, local management implies management over watersheds, rather than administrative units. In turn, watersheds are hierarchical structures, with numerous small ones imbedded in larger ones. In general, a viable watershed as a unit for management will be a collection of watersheds whose size, disposition and boundaries will depend on local physiographical and geological conditions. The implication is that local management will entail many communities (villages, towns, cities) cooperatively coming together to conjunctively share their surface water and groundwater, drawing upon expertise from scientists and engineers.

The California example

As an example of local management, the well known Silicon Valley of California is instructive. The citizens of the Valley have assumed ownership of all water in their watershed, and have been operating a water system for over seven decades, integrating surface water, groundwater, artificial recharge, imported water, water reuse, water treatment, and public education. Comprising over 15 cities, the Silicon Valley watershed is a collection of some 23 smaller watersheds, covering an area of about 3,400 At the core of this democratically managed watershed is a competent cadre of scientists, engineers, and biologists, aided by a well laid out network of monitoring stations. A democratically elected board makes management decisions based on input from its technical staff, portraying an admirable synergism between science and policy.

Against this backdrop, one finds India faced with an immense task of a transition from an infrastructure of existing tanks, canals and other water structures, to making them part of a watershed-based local management system. This transition has to be achieved through holistic principles guided by the hydrological cycle. I

n sheer scope, this transition will be unprecedented anywhere in the world, requiring the imaginative application of hydrological, hydro-geological and ecological principles. Such an application will have to be aided by well-designed long-term monitoring systems, the data from which will form the basis of dynamic sustainable management.

It is obvious that the success of the new approach, founded on local management, requires for its success the setting up of a science-engineering infrastructure, supported by adequate trained personnel and academic research. Simultaneously, appropriate legal mechanisms have to be set in place enabling local citizens to take ownership of water as a necessary prerequisite for management. It is almost certain that the new venture will require the creation of new institutions.

The emerging holistic perception of a national water policy based on the hydrological cycle is ambitious and audacious. Its success will depend on courageous leadership from the Central Government, and its ability to persuade a well-informed citizen to rise up to Gandhiji's concept of dharma in which rights flow from responsibilities.

( T.N. Narasimhan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley. Email:

The success of the new approach will depend on political will and an infrastructure to facilitate science-based watershed management.



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