Towards sustainable water management

SIMMERING CRISIS: In this Dec. 3, 2009 picture, a boy holding an empty bucket participates along with others in a protest against water shortage in Mumbai. Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: Rafiq Maqbool

The 2030 Water Resources Group is a consortium of private-social sector organisations formed in 2008 to provide insights into emerging world-wide water issues. In a report, “Charting our water future” issued in 2009, the group provides a candid, fact-based integrated assessment of the global water situation over the next two decades.

Globally, current withdrawals of about 4,500 cubic km exceed the availability of about 4,200 cubic km. By 2030, the demand is expected to increase to about 6,900 cubic km, with a slight drop in availability to 4,100 cubic km. Thus, by 2030, a global deficit of 40 per cent is forecast. For India, the annual demand is expected to increase to almost 1,500 cubic km, against a projected availability of 744 cubic km; a deficit of 50 per cent. The report admits unavoidable uncertainties in these estimates. As an independent check, an alternative perspective merits consideration.

India’s average annual precipitation is about 1,170 mm, and the land area is 3.28 million sq. km. Thus, the volume of annual precipitation input is 3,840 cubic km. The projected availability of 744 cubic km constitutes about 19 per cent of this amount. In comparison, California, known for its spectacular hydraulic-engineering structures, diverts about 18 per cent of its annual rainfall. For a variety of reasons, California is already contemplating a 20 per cent reduction in water use over the coming decade. Conservatively, if we assume that India may harness 15 per cent of rainfall with careful management, an annual availability of about 600 cubic km is perhaps a reasonable figure to comprehend the scope of India’s water crisis.

Looking to the future, the report stresses that closing the gap between supply and demand will be very difficult. Rather than claiming to provide solutions to all water problems, the authors cautiously consider the report a starting point for meaningful dialogue among all stakeholders for action towards credible solutions. In this spirit, we may examine the implications of their findings to India’s water situation.

In the broadest sense, two questions arise: What do the findings portend for India’s economic growth? How should India respond to the impending crisis?

Concerning economic growth, even a modest 6 per cent annual growth implies a real tripling of the economy by 2030. Is this achievable, if the annual availability is limited to about 600 cubic km? What rate of economic growth should India reasonably plan for?

The question how India should respond is of fundamental importance. India’s greatest challenge is to set in place an equitable, efficient system of governance for sharing a finite resource among all segments of society, simultaneously preserving the integrity of the resource for future generations.

At the time of independence, the annual availability of water in abundant quantities was taken for granted, and India’s Constitution declared water to be a State subject, with the Union government playing a role in inter-State issues. The Constitution does not explicitly recognise water’s unique attributes as a finite resource, widely variable in space and time, and vital for the sustenance of all living things.

At the beginning of the 21st century, when confronted with the imperative of sharing this vital resource among all segments of society according to the values of justice and equality assured in the preamble, one finds a conspicuous lack of philosophical authority necessary to make decisions on the allocation, prioritisation, protection, regulation, and management of water resources. This want of a philosophical basis is manifest in a lack of a national water policy. If so, what might be an appropriate philosophical approach?

India is about as large as Europe without Russia. Both have long histories of human habitation. India comprises 28 States and 7 Union Territories. Europe is a union of 27 independent nations. In 2000, the European Union issued the far-reaching Water Framework Directive with the goal of achieving sustainable management of water. The Directive requires all member-states to establish water laws conforming to common hydrological principles applied over river basins, with the active participation of citizens. The Directive’s philosophical foundation is set forth in the preamble: “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.”

In 1976, a committee on Earth Resources, Time, and Man of the International Union of Geological Sciences observed: “Mankind is on the threshold of a transition from a brief interlude of exponential growth to a much longer period characterised by rates of change so slow as to be regarded essentially as a period of non-growth. Although the impending period of transition to very low growth rates poses no insuperable physical or biological difficulties, those aspects of our current economic and social thinking which are based on the premise that current rates of growth can be sustained indefinitely must be revised. Failing to respond promptly and rationally to these impending changes could lead to a global ecological crisis in which human beings will be the main victims.” This observation clearly anticipates the findings of the 2030 Water Resources Group.

Even with the best available technologies, the finiteness and unpredictable variability of water resource systems place severe limits on human aspirations for prosperity. At present, India is in a difficult position of not only accepting this reality but also having to take concrete steps to adapting to the reality.

A related development. A November 2009 report, “A framework for India’s water policy” of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, discusses India’s water endowments and the human challenges confronting sustainable water management.

(T.N. Narasimhan is in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley.

An international private-social group foresees India’s water demand exceeding availability by a factor of two by 2030. Time is now for India to take on the daunting task of formulating a unifying national water policy.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 10:24:57 AM |

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