Blue revolution blues

The soil isn't soil any more

Water is water no more

Even then

The forest hasn't diminished

Tigers have not dwindled

Beasts manage to find preys

But grass doesn't grow enough

To feed the goats

 – From Shivashankar Mishra's Hindi poem Bagh-Bakari

An ocean is named after India. Bangladesh has an entire bay celebrating its location. Pakistan is the home of Harrappa, an ancient water-based civilisation. Rivers from Nepal feed 'mother' Ganga – a river that sustains one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. The mighty Brahmaputra flows down from Tibet through the mountains and plains of Assam and Bangladesh. In peninsular India, rivers such as the Narmada, Krishna, Kaveri and Godavari fight the rocks of the Deccan to make their way to the sea. Sri Lanka boasts of very old waterworks systems. Uncle Abdul Gayoom of Maldives never misses a chance for complaining that the islands of his country risk drowning due to global warming.

During the monsoon months, the only news from South Asia in the global media is that of cloudbursts, gales, downpours and floods. By all accounts, South Asia should be floating on water. Perhaps it is. But it is also a region that is likely to face an extreme water crisis in the next 20 years. As populations grow, lifestyles change, cropping becomes more intensive, and as industrial uses of water increase, the demand for freshwater will soar. Already, due to urbanisation, per capita consumption of water in congested areas is spiralling out of control. Water may abound everywhere but there will be none to drink if serious attention is not paid to 'water cultivation'.

When the World Water Forum meets in Kyoto, Japan, this month, South Asia is sure to be the focus of its attention. Conflicts over riparian rights between neighbouring countries often hog the limelight. The problems between Nepal and India over the Mahakali river, between India and Bangladesh over Farakka, between India and Pakistan over the Indus – all of them feed on the fuel of patriotism. Within India, the demand for Kaveri water pits Krishna of Karnataka and Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu against each other. But these conflicts, complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the overall water management challenges facing South Asia.

The problem

The availability of water has remained unchanged for millions of years. Power from the sun continues to run the hydrological cycle that keeps the supply of freshwater at almost a steady pace. Water is not as scarce as it is assumed to be, at least not yet. In fact, the annual monsoon causes devastating floods. The access to water, however, is a different matter altogether. When the Ganga and Yamuna are overflowing, access to safe drinking water actually worsens in their floodplains. Much water is not necessarily much use.

In water-walla jargon, white water is treated for consumption and transformed into fresh water. Some of it is discharged as grey water from kitchens and bathrooms, while most of it is turned into brown water in toilets. Then there is the black water laden with chemical effluents of industries. The management of this system is a nightmare, because science cannot replicate in scale the hydrological cycle of nature. Even if all our social resources are pooled, we can harness, treat, supply and recycle only a very limited quantity of water. The Chinese, more efficient than us South Asians, are trying their best, with limited success.

The cost of water is another major issue. When it comes to what economists call the 'willingness-to-pay', the pricing of water becomes complicated. Consumers want water to be as cheap as, well, water. Even when an artificial flood of sorts needs to be provided to irrigate sugarcane in the parched fields of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, plantation owners want to pay a pittance. The low price of water implies that there is no incentive for its judicious use; the difference between a running tap and one turned off is marginal. Social and ecological costs are not reflected in the price consumers pay for water.

The indirect costs of poor water quality, however, are quite high. It is believed that almost two-thirds of all diseases in poor countries are water-related. Supply of polluted water for consumption, improper disposal of waste water, and poor water management create serious health hazards. Malaria, cholera and typhoid feast on public health department budgets in Bihar and UP in the Ganga plains. Arsenic in shallow tube-wells in Bangladesh is another cause of concern.

Looking at South Asia's water scene, the problems look too immense for the human mind. No wonder, framers of public policy in the region have begun to look for superhuman solutions, unmindful of sparing a thought for their unintended consequences.

The pharaoh complex

Dreamers of the so-called "garland scheme" of linking up major rivers – the scheme takes on the character of a noose, actually – say that the source of their inspiration is mythological Bhagirath who brought down the Ganga from the heavens for the salvation of his ancestors. In reality, planners of the modern Bharat are aspiring to become pharaohs of the 21st century.

Even though the plan to link rivers is pointless, it is likely to be executed precisely for that very reason. Rulers love grandiose schemes, for it helps them divert the attention of the people from immediate problems that they are either unable or unwilling to solve. Secondly, huge projects offer immense opportunities of distributing sops to court faithfuls. Thirdly, mega-projects keep the educated elite gainfully employed and thus away from the race for power. Finally, the aspiring elite invests its support to take home the huge projects' crumbs at the table.

These proclivities have helped mobilise some public support for the idea of inter-linking India's rivers. The futility of the scheme will be felt only after trillions of rupees and decades of national effort are wasted, but many a public career will be made in the interim by hawking it.

By all accounts, Suresh P Prabhu's promise that work on some of these links will begin by the end of the UN Year of the Freshwater needs to be taken with some seriousness. After all, Mr Prabhu, head of the task force on the proposed project, has the Supreme Court of India's backing. For the court, 560,000 crores of rupees, the initial cost estimate, is just a figure; the number of zeroes will be worked out by accountants.

The technical complexity of the project is the easy part. Granted that pumping 20,000 cusecs of water from 200 ft above mean sea level (near Patna, the only point where the Ganga has divertible surplus) to the Vindhya range at 2860 ft above mean sea level is challenging but possible if the cost of the enterprise is not a concern. But does it make sense to move the millions of people in the way, from Bihar to Tamil Nadu, just to please some paddy farmers of Thanjavur and sugarcane growers of Mandya? Mr Prabhu has some explaining to do on the website that he has promised to launch very soon.

What is being sold as a long-term solution is nothing but a gigantic ecological disaster. It has been predicted that the wars of this century will be fought over fresh water. The Hindutvawaadis of Bharat have begun to the draw the battle lines. Sadly, what they are going to end up with is Indians fighting Indians, for the benefit of a select few of its power elite.

The solution

Despite democracy (or because of it?), most governments aspire to be industrial enterprises in the business of governance. The public sector has abandoned the notion of being institutions wedded to morality. When political leaders think themselves managers of business ventures, they are not likely to pay much attention to ecological or human concerns. All that matters to them is the financial health of the economy; its short-term growth being more important than its sustainability. Hence all the arguments about improving supply, economy of scale and the Indian prime minister's declaration that linking up all the major rivers will be "an insurance against drought". Unfortunately, this is off the mark. For it is in demand-management that there will be a solution to the looming water crisis in the Subcontinent.

Demand management must begin with the acceptance that the smaller the scale of operations, more accurate its predictability, and thus planning. Such an approach requires the devolution of decision-making powers over natural resource management to communities.

Managing the demand of water needs to begin at the household level (rational consumption by every individual), continue at the community level (lifestyle changes to suit water availability), endure at the state or province level (complement varying water needs of different communities), and dominate the thinking at the national level in terms of population control, waste minimisation, and ecological resource planning. These issues are infinitely more complex than raising astronomical sums with all those zeroes required to pump entire rivers over plateaus. For the faithful, taking the mountain to Muhammad makes perfect sense.

It is estimated that while the world's population tripled during the 20th century, water withdrawals increased by over six times. In developing countries, water withdrawal has been growing by four to eight percent every year, much above the population growth rate of these countries. Clearly, there is a need to check this anomaly, and the point to begin at is curbing the cultivation of water-intensive crops. It takes 25 litres of water to produce one kg of rice, and many times more to take one kg of beef to the supermarkets of West Asia. While it will be unreasonable to expect that we revert to the lifestyle of the Stone Age, it makes sense not to grow crops that consume a lot of water.

These are all generalities, the point being that the world must begin to realise that only the judicious use of water can lead to a sustainable planet – common habitat for all living being where modern-day pharaohs have no place to waste the scarce commons. When delegates to Third Water Forum in Kyoto meet concurrently under the aegis of the "South Asian Solidarity on Rivers and People" to discuss "Dams and Development Partnership", they will do well to pay some attention to mundane issues such as rain-water cultivation, community storage of water in tanks and ponds, and the revival of traditional crops that use less water but give higher yields and do not require expensive pesticides that pollute communal water sources.

After the green and the white revolutions, South Asia urgently needs a blue revolution. But this revolution must aim to help the people on the margins. The alternative is too horrendous to contemplate. Tigers will also perish if Shivashankar Mishra's goats do not get enough grass to eat. Both the bagh and the bakari have to learn to live together.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian