Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Liquid Famine

Liquid Famine
By Narendra Luther

This is the year of water. So, let us look at water before it flows into history.

Water is life. Rivers and water bodies are sources of sustenance for fauna flora and humans. That is why most of the cities of the world were established on the banks of rivers. Great civilizations developed and flourished on the banks of rivers like the Tigris, the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Sind. With the change in the course of rivers, or their drying up, cities are known to have vanished.

Basic facts about water

A few basic facts about water: First, from the day the planet earth came into being till today, the amount of total water availability has not varied.

Second, we have been tempering with the traditional systems of reservoirs of water, both natural and man-made. Constructions like factories, buildings, and other obstructions have been allowed to come up in the catchments. This has resulted in blocking of natural flows of water.

Third, the water supply systems have been increasingly centralized. In place of dispersed storages created by nature or local communities, official reservoirs have been created and distribution from them has been placed under centralized bureaucracies.

Fourth, desilting of water bodies and channels has not been attended to routinely, thus reducing their storage, and carrying capacity respectively.

Last, in new colonies and the laying of roads and lanes, natural drainage has not been respected and no proper substitute plans have been provided. That has resulted in water logging in various areas even after a brief shower.

The looming scarcity

In addition, global warming has adversely affected weathers and seasons. Rains have become erratic. They don’t conform to seasons. That has affected the system of water supply, which is predicated on seasons. Indian agriculture has traditionally been called a ‘gamble in monsoons’. Now the magnitude of the gamble has been enhanced by the uncertain opening time of the ‘casino’.

We therefore face a situation of water famine unheard of before. Cassandras have predicted acute shortage of water even by 2020’s and a permanent scarcity by 2050. Rural Jills have to trudge up to ten kilometers to fetch a pail of water. It is quite conceivable that the wars of the future would be for water more than for oil. In India, we already find ‘civil wars’ between the riparian states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka and AP for sharing of waters from common river sources.

The Garland Canal Project

A paradox in our water situation is that when some areas are suffering from drought, others have deluges. In order to develop a balance, the late Dr K.L. Rao, an eminent engineer who became the minister for irrigation of India, conceived the ‘garland project’ four decades ago. Considered too ambitious and costly, it was not pursued. Now, the present government has revived it and has set up a Task Force to work out the details of the project which is estimated to cost Rs. 5,60,000 crores. I cannot comment upon the practicality of the project at this stage except that it seems too ambitious and given the vicissitudes in our political set up, may not be pursued to its conclusion. Also, it may be bogged down by the sorts of conflicts between states which we are witnessing even today. The situation is grim and is becoming worse every year. Mr. Sompal, member of the Planning Commission in charge of Water Resources has caustically observed that ‘the river linking will not happen in our lifetime’.

In early June 2003, the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority organized an International Workshop on Lakes in Hyderabad. It was part of the expression of its concern about the lack of maintenance of water bodies which is a contributing factor in our water problem. A strange phenomenon is at work in India and other developing counties. The routine maintenance of public assets and works is generally neglected. At the same time, new investments are being made in creating new assets. Because of this policy, the initial capacity and efficiency of the existing utilities goes on diminishing progressively. In the case of Electricity Boards, for example, loss in transmission and frequent breakdowns is attributed by technical people to inattention to maintenance and upgradation of the existing ‘plant’. Similar neglect is in evidence in the case of water sources. We allow this neglect till a crisis develops. Then it is tackled on an emergency basis. That is because the creation of new assets makes news while their maintenance of the existing assets goes unnoticed. So, both from the pint of view of drama and votes, attention is paid to new projects and not to routine maintenance of old ones. A manager of a public utility becomes a hero when he tackles a crisis though it might have been created by his own negligence.

Story of Lakes

A good example is provided by the Workshop on lakes referred to above. Encroachments on lakebeds, their pollution by the free flow of sewerage into them and diversion of water from them has been allowed unchecked. In Hyderabad, the Vengala Rao Park in Banjara Hills was recently inaugurated with great fanfare. No one mentioned that it was laid on the dead body of a lake which was systematically killed by encroachers and land grabbers. Earlier, similar development had happened in the case of Mansab Tank. As the very name suggests, it was a lake. Today there is a habitation – and a park there.

Lopsided priorities

At the Workshop referred to above, Mr. Sompal, Member of the Planning Commission expressed his concern at the lack of adequate concern for the development of water resources. He said that while Rs. 98,900 crores were allocated to the telecommunication sector in the 10th Plan, only 3,300 crores was provided for water resources. In the 9th Plan the allocation was Rs. 92,600 crores for the telecom sector and Rs. 1955 crores for water resources. We are trying to provide better communication for people whose very existence is at stake!

It was also announced at the Hyderabad Workshop on Lakes that it is proposed to privatize these water bodies. That would be only legalizing the existing situation. Already water bodies are treated by people as private property. Witness the encroachments, constructions, landfills and diversion of water that is taking place in lakes. What is required is more effective public control over them and not offering them to private parties.

Earlier people have died of food famines. The Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen has observed that famines take place in dictatorships, not in democracies. He was referring to food famines. His logic is that the public awareness of the developing situation and the clamour raised about them will prevent their occurrence. Well, the new famine of water is developing under democratic regimes in India. Indians will not die of starvation henceforth; they will die of thirst. The only relieving feature of such a death is that it is quicker.
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