Basic Water Science
by Ajaya Dixit
Water Conservation Foundation (NWCF),
Price NR 600.00 (for hard cover), NR 450.00
(for soft cover) 2002, pp 420+11
Water has stimulated a great many feats of grandiose engineering. The exploits of antiquity in conveying water across long distances and using the force of gravity indicate that the harnessing of water is not an exclusively modern preoccupation. What distinguishes the imposing engineering feats of the past from those of the present is the scale on which science is now applied to water to tap its potential for commercial ends. This difference in scale was made possible by the advances in technology that accelerated after the European scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. And what amplified the commercial potential of water was that this new-found technological sophistication coincided and combined with the steady growth of markets and the new forms of organising production introduced by the capitalism as the first truly global system in history. Together, this advent of machines and the pursuit of the large-scale that it facilitated, produced a distinctively modern psyche supremely confident of its capacity to conquer, domesticate and orient nature to the convenience of man. Modern water science, unlike ancient large-scale water science that was geared to the limited needs of a numerically small elite, is a product of this industrial psyche.
The external combustion engine gave water more than a predominantly agricultural use. Water from then on became one of the most crucial factors of industrial activity, be it in the manufacture of cloth or the transport of goods. The age of steam introduced a new ethic in the use of water that the water mills and other run-of- river technologies, which also harnessed the force of water, did not need. Henceforth, in the seemingly endless drive to exploit its inherent properties, new and engineered environments had to be continuously created for water. This could range from the boiler for making steam to large dams for generating electricity, from extensively altering drainage patterns to creating new ways of discarding the enormous quantities of liquid effluvium that industrial society managed to produce. The sum total of all these interventions entailed a necessary modification in the natural dynamics and mechanics of water.
The need for the efficient exploitation of water led to the emergence of a scientific discipline with its complex of research institutions and retinue of trained personnel. The peer group that emerged from this system created and reinforced the consensus about the possibilities of unlimited intervention. Gathering momentum in the 19th century, the world saw increasingly daring hydraulic accomplishments, culminating in the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1936 which served as a model for mega-water engineering. The next few decades saw a flurry of dam building activity that has only now begun to abate. The institutionalised disciplinary foundations on which the exploitation of water rested become more sophisticated as they enlarged in scope to include the knowledge of various other related disciplines like material science, soil mechanics and geology. As sophistication in the practical knowledge of water engineering increased, so did the certitudes.
Ironically, just as water engineering seemed to be at the peak of achievement, difficulties began to crop up at the doorstep of the global water establishment. By the 1960s, a new tradition of dissent against the mega-engineering paradigm had begun to emerge, documenting the adverse consequences of the unremitting colonisation of water. By the late 1980s this counter-current had forced on the world the realisation that all the hydraulic activity of the previous century and a half had actually unleashed a crisis of immense magnitude on the planet. The realisation of the crisis set off its own chain of reactions prompted by the need to mitigate the damaging effects of past interventions and minimise the damaging possibilities of future interventions of the same kind.
In a sense, Basic Water Science, written by a water engineer with an impeccable orthodox training in fluid mechanics, is a product of this crisis. Trained in the institutions of South Asia and Europe that actually were party to the emerging crisis of excessive intervention in the natural process, the author for many years taught to prospective engineers all that he explicitly renounces in this book. And yet, that renunciation is not just a naïve or uncritical rejection of water science, as the book amply illustrates. It is informed by a philosophy of the role of water in society based on an understanding of the place of water in history, and motivated by well-defined principles of the place of people in water without neglecting its science. This is a matter of some siginificance, since, as a reaction to the anti-humanist nihilism of hyper-science there has been a tendency among some lapsed scientists and engineers to go to the other extreme and denounce all intervention in nature as being fundamentally repugnant.
Avoiding such extremes, the author, now a researcher of inter-disciplinary water management, provides a magisterial survey of the evolution of the scientific knowledge on water. For a book of reasonably intimidating thickness it is reassuringly accessible in the style of its exposition, so that it is a useful manual not only for students pursuing water science professionally, for whom it is perhaps intended, but also for lay persons interested in water as a phenomenon crucial importance for the planet. Basic Water Science therefore serves a particularly useful function. Despite all the critiques against the orthodox model of water ‘development’, as an establishment that has entrenched itself over a century and a half, the water technocracy still commands immense power in the sphere of policy making and project implementation, globally as well as in the individual countries of South Asia. This technocracy continues to wield this influence because of a lack of transparency in water-related decision-making, which in turn is made possible by the fact that awareness of water is generally very low among the non-scientific community.
Water education, particularly in South Asia, is technologically guided. It is restricted by and large to those who pursue it as a specialisation, and is provided by institutions whose curricula are designed to reproduce the development model based on the exploitation of commodified natural resources. Ajaya Dixit’s Basic Water Science, informed by the principles of locally relevant and participatory management of resources therefore serves as a persuasive textbook of the alternative, polycentric view of water. The accessibility of the book comes both from the way its content is organised and the simplicity with which the argument is expressed. The work is divided into 11 chapters, and interspersed with boxes that punctuate the main body of the text with arresting facts about water, brief biographical sketches of prominent scientists who enunciated principles that contributed to development of water science, and historical information about techniques of water use over time.
The opening two chapters of the book set out the essentials of water as a naturally occurring phenomenon and a socially appropriated necessity. The first chapter is particularly useful for lay readers, since it describes the various dimensions of water in nature and discusses the basic elements of hydrology as a discipline that embraces the life history of water on earth. These include the ‘forms’ of water, the formations these give rise to, the processes it unleashes, and the techniques of measuring them. The second chapter is a concise history of the principles and processes that gave rise to the water exploitation model. It traces the discovery of the various principles relating to water, the different organisational forms in which research on water was conducted, the emergence of the socio-economic system under which the technological water regime developed, and the convergence of institutions and interests that brought together the disciplines of hydrology, hydrostatics, fluid mechanics, civil engineering, geology, soil mechanics, material science and a host of other specialisations to bear on the exploitation of water through hydraulic engineering.
This is a process that began a few centuries ago, through discrete and independent developments and discoveries, all of which converged with rapid momentum in response to the new economic rationale that accompanied and bolstered the industrial revolution. Dixit provides fascinating sidelights on water-related developments in Asia, which were of a different order during the pre-industrial period. This brings out in sharp relief the global dominance of the Western water establishment in a few decades starting from the mid-19th century. The author locates this creeping influence not just in terms of the spread of these ideas through the institutions of learning established under colonial rule, but also in terms of the active role played by governments of developed countries in encouraging the application of big technologies of water control. Brief though this account is, it nevertheless sets out with clarity the historical process by which local communities lost the control of water management to centralised and distant organs of the state representing the interests, everywhere be it Europe or South Asia, of an oligarchic elite.
The next four chapters and chapter eight are more technical in content and style. Geared for students of engineering, they deal with the established sub-divisions and principles of hydaulics, such as hydrostatics, hydrokinetics and hydrokinematics. The effort in these chapters is to relate these hydraulic theories to real life situations, with examples of ballast tanks for explaining the Archimedes principle, of drawing kerosene from a large drum using a siphon, of tap water flow to illustrate the difference between laminar flows and turbulent flows, of the sancho, a water allocating device used in the hills of Nepal.
Chapter seven again reverts to the non-technical mode to discuss domestic supply systems and the process by which useful water is converted into a waste. In addition to the dynamics of this transformation, the author evaluates the different techniques of drawing water, the social responses to groundwater deficits, rainwater harvesting and community participation and socio-economic factors in water supply management, and outlines the historical development of technology and organisation in meeting urban drinking water. Chapter nine addresses the dominant consumptive user of water, which is agriculture. Even as late as the commencement of the new millennium, agriculture accounted for 67 percent all global water use, with industry accounting for 19 percent and domestic use 9 percent. Irrigation is clearly the most crucial area as far as water management is concerned. Accordingly, Dixit focuses on irrigation systems built by external agents as well as local farmer-built and managed systems. This inevitably raises issues of conflicts, water rights and legal arrangements. In examining the social aspects and institutions of water use for irrigation, the author emphasises the importance of the choice of technique. Millions of small landowners and asset-poor families in South Asian countries depend on groundwater for irrigation and use technologies such as the treadle pump. But the policy environment is skewed in favour of methods rooted in the colonial model, the history of which is traced in this chapter.
The last chapter on hydro-power completes the book’s own ‘cycle’, and reverts to the hydrological issues that are raised in the first chapter, of the course and dynamics of water in nature, linking it to the creation of hydraulic structures that obstruct its flow and impound it for the purposes of economic development. The process of harnessing water plays havoc with ecological and hydrological mechanisms and in this context Dixit effectively raises fundamental questions about the relationship between big science and decision-making in the context of the direct and indirect costs of such decisions. In evaluating quantitative benefits for a vaguely defined national economy, he writes, very little attention is paid either to the qualitative disadvantages or to the quantitative costs to poor and marginalised people who can neither enter the decision-making process nor influence it from outside.
This, in a sense, is the culminating proof of the main argument of the book, that local, relevant, participatory systems function better socially and have lower costs environmentally than projects conceived of, designed and implemented by outside agents for the benefit of limited numbers who live elsewhere, both spatially and socially. The structure of the book and its multi-disciplinary approach both justify the purpose for which it was written, namely to introduce social science to engineering. And the effortless translation of a technical science into lay language has also ensured that the book has introduced engineering into social science. This book is a unique contribution to the study of and debate over the use of water in modern times, and is of global relevance. For having balanced the technical aspects of water with passionate rhetorical tracts at the ethical level, this is a work useful for readers across a broad range of disciplines, from bureaucracy and diplomacy to social activism. But most certainly it should be assigned as essential reading for engineering and social science students in all the regions of South Asia, as a region where scarce water is increasingly going to be an area generating conflict across territorial, class and demographic boundaries.