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Editorial: Water Policy is a giant step to nowhere

The National Water Policy 2012 cleared by the National Water Resources Council (NWRC) a few days ago, is a mixed bag. For a change it takes the bull by the horns in suggesting an integrated approach to water management in practice and policy. It suggests an overarching act that recognized water as a sustainer of life and ecology that will prescribe what states must do even though the Prime Minister was cautious to say “the central government, I repeat, does not wish to encroach, in any manner, upon the constitutionally guaranteed rights of States or to centralize water management”.

The law will cover the development of inter-state rivers and streamline the management of water in India. It will mandate state water policies; many states already have these policies and others are making them but they are a disparate lot. It is in this context that a suggestion has been made for a national legal framework of general principles on water, which, in turn, would pave the way for essential legislation on water governance in every State.

The Policy at least recognizes India’s water challenges: the water bodies are getting increasingly polluted by untreated industrial effluents and sewage. Groundwater levels are falling in many parts due to excessive withdrawals, leading to contamination with fluoride, arsenic and other chemicals. The practice of open defecation, which regrettably is all too widespread, contributes further to contaminating potable water sources. The rapid economic growth and urbanisation were widening the demand supply gap and worsening the country’s water-stress index.

The Policy ensures people’s access to a minimum quantity of potable water for health and hygiene, determining ecological needs and bolstering water infrastructure in the east and north-east, that it claims are ‘water-rich’. However, a stronger statement recognizing lifeline water as a fundamental right and stipulations on its quality and quantity is needed here. The final Policy does not spell out water allocation priorities as was there in earlier drafts. There should be provisions holding the state accountable if it fails to provide this basic right, along with legal reforms for enforcement. The Policy does not spell out priorities for water allocation.

While community participation figures in the Policy in planning, execution, maintenance, and collection of payments, it is marred by the language. Couched in the familiar patronizing words, it implies communities are an exotic animal to be involved in managing water. It does not recognize the vital role of people in managing water, projects and finances, without which it is impossible to ensure everybody has enough water of usable quality.

There are some indications of new thinking, as in the need to use local water resources for water supply, before providing water through long distance transfer. This is also one of the Centre for Science and Environment’s principles of water management and has been incorporated in the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP).

The Policy, redrafted after 2002, has some welcome changes to deal with climate change. It states that ‘special impetus should be given towards mitigation at micro-level by enhancing the capabilities of community to adopt climate resilient technological options. These strategies could include increasing water storage in soil moisture, ponds, ground water, small and large reservoirs, and their combination, which provides a mechanism for dealing with increased variability because of climate change.’ It also calls for better demand management in agriculture and industry.

Community participation is also the key, according to the Policy, in mapping aquifers for which a provision has been made in the 12th FYP. It recognized the rapid depletion of groundwater, but does not spell out any specifics; the drastic decline in this resource needs drastic steps, and we feel the policy is inadequate in this regard. More proactive steps, retraining groundwater board staff and a national programme on community groundwater management based on successful experiments in India is required here.

In water efficiency, the Policy recognized the importance of small schemes, while making a case for efficiency across the board. Strangely however, no target is mentioned making this a vague statement.

The Policy details water pricing, while cautioning that differential pricing may be required to supply lifeline water. It recommends setting up water regulatory authorities in state to regulate water tariffs and the system as a whole. Water charges must be volumetric and water user associations must be free to fix these to suit local conditions subject to a floor tariff. However, experience with existing regulatory authorities has been very poor, and it has been seen they are very susceptible to political and industrial pressures, at the expense of agriculture and domestic supply. NWP recognizes Gujarat’s positive experience of the Jyotirgram scheme.

It calls for protection of rivers, water bodies and infrastructure by identifying and protecting flood plains, removing encroachments, checking illegal sand mining, pollution, and improving the maintenance of water infrastructure. NWP should have emphasized on completing existing projects, the cause of cost overruns, but has instead subsumed this under the need to have more such projects. The silver lining is including people – panchayats, municipalities, etc., - from the planning stage.

To control floods, the Policy does state rehabilitating natural drainages but then reverts to the old rhetoric of building more embankments, spurs and revetments. India has a mixed experience with these, and there is no mention of rehabilitating existing structures.

On water supply and sanitation, NWP breaks new ground only in stating that urban water supply and sewage treatment schemes should be integrated and built simultaneously. It re-states the obvious: cities should get their water from surface systems and encouraging rainwater harvesting. Worryingly, it introduces desalination as an option instead of pointing the way towards maximizing local water availability. There are a few noises about incentivizing reuse that are welcome, but needed to be spelt out better. The Policy ignores the elephant in the room; that cities draw half their water from the ground and this needs to be balanced by an aggressive urban water management plan.

A National Water Disputes Tribunal takes shape in the Policy but the section on institutional arrangements and inter-state rivers has blacked out the existing laws and tribunals. How the new tribunal will sit with those already around, and those that have passed verdict and folded up, is unclear. This may be recipe for further inter-state conflicts given the recent experience of the one between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka who refuse to accept orders from the Prime Minister.

Nitya Jacob, CSE
Reality Bites
The new Water Policy lacks bite even as it makes statements that hint at greater private involvement in water service delivery
Text: Bharat Lal Seth
Art: Karno Guhathakurta
Guest Blog: Engaging with for Conflicts in India
Engaging with Water Conflicts in India

Though the doom’s day prediction about a world war on water may not take place, and thankfully so, there are a million revolts taking place in the water sector in India. In India water conflicts are often perceived as conflicts between two or more riparian states sharing a river as it has been one of the more visible ones. Contestation over allocation of water across different uses and users has been on the increase in the country. This contestation has taken various shapes and forms: urban versus urban, agriculture versus industry, consumptive use versus ecosystem needs, inequities in access in the urban space as well as irrigation commands are all examples of this.  Dams, submergence and displacements have been another source of conflict in the country and still continue to be so. With increasing trend towards urbanisation, industrialisation and chemicalised agriculture water quality and pollution have been major issue in the country. Very often water conflicts are associated with scarcity. However, the increasing contestation around floods – over embankments, reservoir operations, encroachments on natural drainages in the cities, the way relief and rehabilitation is organised – shows that even abundance also causes conflicts. Privatisation is the latest entrant. The increasing trend towards water privatisation – of water sources, service delivery and trading of entitlements and rights – is also giving rise to more and more water conflicts. The Plachimada case in Kerala between the villagers and the Coca Cola bottling plant is only one amongst the innumerable number of conflicts around privatisation.  The high growth rate centred economic paradigm driven by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation has only exacerbated the situation.

Water conflicts in India now reach every level; divide every segment of our society – nations, states, regions and sub-regions within states, districts, village communities, political parties, castes and farmers. Conflicts are taken to be bad or negative, but they are logical developments in the absence of proper democratic, legal and administrative mechanisms to handle issues that are at the root of water conflicts.

Part of the problem also stems from the specific nature of water as a resource: for example, (i) water is divisible and amenable to sharing; (ii) but it is a common pool resource so that a unit of water used by someone is a unit denied to others; (iii) it has multiple uses and users and involves resultant tradeoffs; (iv) excludability is an inherent problem and exclusion costs involved are often very high; (v) it requires a consideration and understanding of nested expanding scales and boundaries from the local watershed to inter-basin transfers; and (v) the way water is planned, used and managed causes externalities – both positive and negative, and many of them are unidirectional and asymmetric.

These characteristics have a bearing on water related policies, laws and institutions. They have the potential not only to trigger contention and conflict and become an instrument of polarisation and exclusion, but also to become an instrument of equitable and sustainable prosperity for all those who directly or indirectly depend on them for their livelihoods.
Water conflicts are symptoms of larger issues in the water resources governance, the ways we think about water and the ways we manage it. First of all we need to get out of the thinking that sees water flowing out to the sea as water going waste. This thinking, still prevalent in the country, led to a water management strategy centred on dams. The lesson is that water is a resource embedded within ecosystems; we cannot treat it as a freely manipulable resource.

In India viewpoints about water issues have been highly polarised. The richness and diversity of context in India – bio-physical, social, economic as well as political context – itself creates a fragmented polity and tends towards polarisation rather than synthesis. What we need is a process that recognises the inclusiveness that water involves.

We need to recognise that water is a peculiar resource by its very nature. While water is divisible and amenable to sharing and used locally, it is a common pool ecosystem resource, integrated at various levels and scales. Similarly, water required for livelihood needs is a right and made available to all on reasonable and affordable terms. The water use beyond these needs is to be treated as an economic good and priced accordingly. And crucially, we need to be able not only to share water, but share shortages and surpluses.

Overarching these is the issue of governance: who decides, on what basis? It is high time we recognised that while the nature of water as a local-global resource calls for a sufficiently flexible institutional arrangement that will bring together stakeholders at different levels in a continuing dialogue. Presently there is no such mechanism in place. In fact, the tendency has been to fragment rather than integrate where water is concerned. It is important in this respect to look at multi stakeholder platforms (MSPs) with giving attention to the heterogeneity of stakeholders or similar processes that bring stakeholders together. The experience in western countries and the limited experience in India in multi stakeholder dialogues show that MSPs have resulted in better outcomes than polarised wars of attrition.

In India, water conflicts pose a significant threat to economic growth, social stability, security and ecosystem health. And under threat are the poorest of the poor as well as the very sources of our water – our rivers, wetlands and aquifers. Unless we come together and evolve a consensual framework in India and go beyond the polarised discourse, water will continue to divide us, emotionally and politically, leading to a million revolts! The Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India (Forum to be brief, details at – an initiative of individuals and institutions which has been in existence for the last seven years – is a humble attempt in this direction.

The authors work with Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), Pune. They have edited Water Conflicts in India: A Million Revolts in the Making, published in 2008, Routledge, New Delhi, the book in India to document a large number of different types of water conflicts.

K. J. Joy and Shruti Vispute

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Conferences and Events
Water, Energy & Environment Technology International Exhibition & Conference

Venue: Bombay Convention & Exhibition Centre, Goregaon (East), Mumbai, India January 15-18, 2013

International Water Summit

Venue: Abu Dhabi Dates: 15-17 January 20

2nd Water Research Conference

Venue: Singapore Dates: 20-23 January 2013

India Water Expo 2013

Gujarat University, Exhibition Hall  1-3 February, 2013

2nd workshop on Indian water management in 21st century (iwm)

Themes: Management of Surface and Subsurface water Resources

Management of water and wastewater conveyance and treatment systems

Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar 7th February, 2013

Water Today’s Water Expo 2013

Theme: Water and Wastewater Chennai Trade Centre 7-9 February, 2013

The international Exhibition and Conference on Water Technologies, Environmental Technologies, and Renewable Energy

Bombay Exhibition Centre, Mumbai February 12-14, 2013

National conference on "Water management in India"

Theme: Advance practice & government policies for urban & rural water services The Imperial, New Delhi, India February 13, 2013

4th PAGES Open Science Meeting - The Past: A Compass for Future Earth

13-16 Feb 2013, Goa, India

10th India Water Expo 2013

International Exhibition & Conference on Water & Wastewater Management Chennai Trade Centre, Nandambakkam, Chennai, India February 28th - March 2nd, 2013