Worth of water
Vinod Anand | 16 Nov 2011

The World Development Report of the year 2003 ranked India a lowly 133rd among the 180 countries in terms of water availability, and 120th among 122 in terms of water quality.

THE PERCEIVED inadequacy of water for increased food production, the rapid depletion of groundwater and pollution of rivers and water bodies in developing countries, and fears of increasing conflict and competition over sharing water These phenomena are neither universal nor of uniform intensity but are sufficiently widespread to cause concern. That these problems are being widely discussed, even if in grossly simplified terms, perhaps helps focus public attention on the urgent need to address them, In India, where demand is outstripping supply both in urban and rural areas, are we headed for an even worse crisis?

Water scarcity in India is largely manmade. It is the result of short-sighted .pricing policy for public water supply that encourages wasteful use of water and makes it difficult to raise resources for upkeep and expansion of the system. Then there is reduced recharge due both to the destruction of natural recharge mechanisms and Ineffective pollution mechanisms. A highly subsidized supply of electricity for pumping has ensured unregulated exploitation of groundwaterIf these problems are addressed seriously, the severity of the problem can be substantially reduced. This calls for concerted effort, combining the instruments of sama, doma and danda, Sama, to make people aware of the magnitude of these problems and to appreciate that competing claims have to be settled on the basis of fair and equitable sharing within the limits of the possible.

Dama, to set up transparent ad fair mechanisms for regulating the extraction, allocation and use of water and to induce economical, conseit1ve use in the larger, long-term social interest.Danda is required fur a strict and fair enforcement of the policies by the government and regulatory agencies. We are failing in all these respects.How can we prevent the over-exploitation of ground water resources? The spread of high-yielding varieties, which are more profitable but also require more water and the reduction in the cost of lifting water by energized pumps and rural electrification programmes have given a powerful impetus to groundwater exploitation in agriculture. This exploitation been left entirely to the decision of individuals with little, if any, effective regulation. These decisions are motivated by considerations of short-term profit rather than a concern for collective good or long-term sustainability. Encouraging water markets besides being undesirable for other reasons will not solve this problem. What is required is an end to the policy of supplying electricity at highly subsidized rates, and, in its place, vesting the rights of use and its regulation to village communities.

Can rainwater harvesting help deal with shortages? The growing public interest in rain water harvesting is welcome. And so are the measures to it mandatory. But laws are not enough because the enforcement is often. weak. Besides, people are convinced about the benefits of ram harvesting. They have mistaken notions about its costs. There aren?t enough people to give them technical advice.Is water privatization the way forward, as some have argued? Leaving the harnessing and distribution of water to private enterprise for profit is neither feasible nor desirable. Unlike say rice or cycles or cloth, water by nature cannot be commoditized. It is the result of a common-pool resource whose management must ensure equitable distribution and long-term sustainability. Profit-seeking private enterprises are not interested in either. This does not mean that the present pattern of government ownership and management is the appropriate solution. That this has failed to achieve any of the purposes of social regulation of irrigation or other uses of water is all too glaring. We need to create autonomous and decentralized organizations, with significant user participation for setting up, financing and managing individual irrigation and domestic water systems.Is river-linking a feasible proposal in your view? I don't think so.

Opposition to river-linking cannot be dismissed as being ideologically motivated or romantic, there is, after all, as much ideology and romanticism in the belief in modern technology's Promethean power to solve all problems and bring happiness to everyone. There are far too many hard and well-grounded doubts and unanswered questions about river-linking. From technical feasibility to economic viability to the impact it?ll have both on the environment and by way of displacement of people. To rush into it without addressing these issues could have disastrous consequences.