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Revised water policy to factor in impact of climate change

Gargi Parsai

Plan to amend Inter-State Water Disputes Act
Locals should be first beneficiaries of projects

New Delhi: Spurred by the need to look at impact of climate change on water resources, the Centre is formulating a revised National Water Policy in consultation with the States and other stakeholders to ensure basin-level management strategies to deal with variability in rainfall and river flows due to climate change.

Ecology over industry?

The government is also looking at amendment to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, and the River Boards Act for time-bound clarificatory/supplementary orders of tribunals on inter-State water disputes and for setting up Inter-State River Basin Authority for overall coordination of watershed agencies under inter-State basins.

The revised policy will take on board crucial issues such as demand management of water, equitable distribution, water pricing, stringent regulatory mechanism and allocating priority to water for life-support and ecology over industry. Needless to say, the industry is opposing the last priority it might be allocated.

The Centre wants water budgeting and water auditing to be made mandatory. There is a suggestion to introduce tradable water entitlements for farmers but there is no agreement on it.

The Ministry of Water Resources is holding a series of consultations with the States and other stakeholders on various aspects of the proposed revised policy and will reconcile various points of view. The final decision would be vested in the National Water Resources Council headed by the Prime Minister with Chief Ministers as members.

Multipurpose reservoirs

In the new scheme of things, it is proposed to plan for multi-purpose reservoir systems with stakeholder participation after thorough examination of all alternatives. The benefits and costs of every project along with environmental and social costs should be assessed and it should be ensured that local people are the first beneficiaries.

However, the Ministry has come up with the rider that while assessing costs-benefits, environmental and social costs, stakeholders must consider the cost of not providing water to people for different uses.

It is proposed to incentivise water conservation. State governments may be advised to set up Independent Water Regulatory Authority for addressing water allocation, water use efficiency and physical and financial sustainability of water resources.

There is a suggestion to enact an over-arching Water Act to signal water sector as an important policy priority.

Water policy needs to induce efficiency

By Bappaditya Chatterjee

The Centre is formulating a revised National Water Policy (NWP) for which the Union Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) held consultations with water experts and stakeholders. The government floated its first National Water Policy in 1987 and a revised version was made in 2002. But there are doubts over the approach of the government: whether it will reflect the importance of ecosystem and eco-hydrological updating of water policy or end up with traditional civil engineering oriented water management such as building up dams and embankments.

Prof. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay of IIM Calcutta, an invitee to the consultation meeting on reviewing water policy, stated, “To say the least, we do not have a policy that responds to the need of the hour. It is a problem of colonial history of water management in India that instead of interdisciplinary policy guiding the country and the government to appropriate choices of water engineering, traditional water engineers of the Ministry of Water Resources with their minds fixed on large scale structural interventions into water systems, are given the task of writing the National Water Policy.”

(Download (pdf): Water policy needs to induce efficiency)

Integrated management

Water management is fragmented and shared among several ministries with the task of irrigation entrusted to the MoWR, the task of pollution control to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the task of providing safe drinking water to the Ministry of Rural Development or the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. The demand is for integrated management, not a differentiated one. The policy framework has to update itself periodically as water science progresses and suggest effective institutions for the allocation of water for diverse requirements based on updated technological choices.

Water policy needs knowledge of many other disciplines, for example, fisheries and aquatic biodiversity, ecological economics, anthropology, and many others. This is the task that needs professionals with high levels of interdisciplinary knowledge both in natural and social sciences.

National Water Policy (NWP) 2002

Achyut Das, Director of Agragamee, an NGO, was invited by MoWR for consultation before enunciating NWP 2002 said, “NWP 2002 was not correct in many ways as it has talked of Basin Level Management where as it should have been at the level of micro-catchments with emphasis on catch water where it falls. Ecology should have been given its due place and importance.”

Due to historical imperatives, Indian water management even today starts with a commitment to irrigation and that too, a very inefficient irrigation system. Prof. Bandyopadhyay stated, “In India, 85% of water supplied is for an irrigation system whose efficiency is about 35%. Policy needs to promote more efficient use of water but no one questions the farmers about this inefficiency. Unlike the more informed policies in many countries like those of EU, Australia, South Africa, etc. the basic goal of water management as expressed in the policy is not to sustain the ecological status of the water systems.”

India that is the largest irrigated country in the world, ranks the lowest when it comes to access to safe drinking water with about 300 million people denied this.

Pricing for efficient water usage

Water policy must encourage efficient use of water. China faces similar problems of inefficient irrigation system but they have taken efficient irrigation as a major challenge. Israel has reached a level of irrigation efficiency more than 50%. This is because they maintain the economics of water while in India there is no valuation of water supplied. If water is scarce, it needs to be used efficiently. There has to be a price tag on it. However, drinking water for all or at nominal cost should be ensured before pricing is introduced.

Sustainable river management

Water science that addresses the specific hydro-meteorological conditions in India has to develop with an interdisciplinary eco-systemic perspective.

For example, traditional engineering rooted in the European knowledge base regards rising levels of rivers as an unexpected disaster. According to Prof. Bandyopadhyay, “An eco-systemic perspective will say that as long as the monsoon creates the weather of India and the Himalaya stands tall, the high flows in the rivers are the most expected hydrological events and we have to take ad-vantage from them rather than spending billions of rupees in trying to control such flows, conveniently called ‘floods’.”

If one continues to follow the traditional path of structural interventions, we will only cre-ate fertile grounds for continued conflicts, from environmental destruction to direct conflicts over sharing a limited gift of nature.

India environment portal

THE ISSUE: India faces the task of a transition from an infrastructure of existing water structures to making them part of a watershed-based local management system. In the article “Approach to new national water policy”, its author Ramaswamy R.

A major shift in perception of national water policy

T.N. Narasimhan

The success of the new approach will depend on political will and an infrastructure to facilitate science-based watershed management In the article “Approach to new national water policy”, its author Ramaswamy R. Iyer (Editorial page, October 29, 2010) argues eloquently for a departure from incrementally building on the Ministry of Water Resources' National Water Policy of 2002 to a holistic approach starting from scratch.

At its core, the new approach recognises that water availability is finite and variable, and that economic growth is incompatible with limited water availability. Painful choices are to be made in sharing the vital resource under an overarching philosophy of ecological health and social justice, guided by Gandhiji's dharma of balancing rights with responsibility. In the new approach, mega projects will play a subordinate role, with water management being implemented at local levels.

Placed in context, Mr. Iyer's approach signals an unmistakable shift from a supply-demand mindset to holistic science-based management. In its mid-term appraisal report of the XIth Plan, the Planning Commission recognised, based on persuasive scientific evidence, that India's water situation is even more serious than originally assessed, and concluded that a solution cannot be found unless “we can come out of the silos into which we have divided water and take a holistic view of the hydrological cycle”.

In May, the Prime Minister's Climate Council presented its Water Mission to the people, suggesting that water conservation should be a people's movement in India, and that all water data be in the public domain to mobilise citizens, and local and State governments for dedicated actions on water conservation and augmentation. The mission also envisions an approved National Water Policy in place by 2013.

Considering that Mr. Iyer is a former Secretary of Water Resources, it is clear that there is a definite shift in perception of a national water policy at the highest levels of governance. The shift eschews supply-demand philosophy, embracing, instead, science-based management with people's participation at various levels of decision-making. The new vision is radical, and introduces extraordinary challenges to get a National Water Policy approved by 2013.

The challenges

Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting the new approach concerns adaptation to limited water availability, and wean away from an aspiration for growth. The concept is deceptively simple, but the political difficulties involved are enormous. Will there be a will to find a way out?

The second challenge confronting the new approach concerns “local management”, which may be understood differently by different people. In the context of holistic management based on the hydrological cycle, local management implies management over watersheds, rather than administrative units. In turn, watersheds are hierarchical structures, with numerous small ones imbedded in larger ones. In general, a viable watershed as a unit for management will be a collection of watersheds whose size, disposition and boundaries will depend on local physiographical and geological conditions. The implication is that local management will entail many communities (villages, towns, cities) cooperatively coming together to conjunctively share their surface water and groundwater, drawing upon expertise from scientists and engineers.

The California example

As an example of local management, the well known Silicon Valley of California is instructive. The citizens of the Valley have assumed ownership of all water in their watershed, and have been operating a water system for over seven decades, integrating surface water, groundwater, artificial recharge, imported water, water reuse, water treatment, and public education. Comprising over 15 cities, the Silicon Valley watershed is a collection of some 23 smaller watersheds, covering an area of about 3,400 At the core of this democratically managed watershed is a competent cadre of scientists, engineers, and biologists, aided by a well laid out network of monitoring stations. A democratically elected board makes management decisions based on input from its technical staff, portraying an admirable synergism between science and policy.

Against this backdrop, one finds India faced with an immense task of a transition from an infrastructure of existing tanks, canals and other water structures, to making them part of a watershed-based local management system. This transition has to be achieved through holistic principles guided by the hydrological cycle.

In sheer scope, this transition will be unprecedented anywhere in the world, requiring the imaginative application of hydrological, hydro-geological and ecological principles. Such an application will have to be aided by well-designed long-term monitoring systems, the data from which will form the basis of dynamic sustainable management.

It is obvious that the success of the new approach, founded on local management, requires for its success the setting up of a science-engineering infrastructure, supported by adequate trained personnel and academic research. Simultaneously, appropriate legal mechanisms have to be set in place enabling local citizens to take ownership of water as a necessary prerequisite for management. It is almost certain that the new venture will require the creation of new institutions.

The emerging holistic perception of a national water policy based on the hydrological cycle is ambitious and audacious. Its success will depend on courageous leadership from the Central Government, and its ability to persuade a well-informed citizen to rise up to Gandhiji's concept of dharma in which rights flow from responsibilities.

( T.N. Narasimhan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley. Email:

Approach to a new national water policy

Ramaswamy R. Iyer

In place of the current slogan of Integrated Water Resource Management, we should look at Responsible, Harmonious, Just and Wise Use of Water.

The Union Ministry of Water Resources has undertaken a review and revision of the National Water Policy (NWP) 2002. The present article is intended as a contribution to that process. It will not offer a detailed critique of the Ministry's discussion paper, but will outline an approach for its consideration.

Need for radical overhaul

Ideally, a review at this stage should take climate change into account, but while we know that climate change may mean increased precipitation in some areas, increased drought in some others, and increased variability of precipitation, we do not yet know in detail precisely what will happen, when and where. Studies on these matters are still going on. A policy response will have to wait for some reasonably definitive findings on them.

However, an overhaul of the NWP is necessary even without reference to the issue of climate change. The reason for saying so is that there has been a gross mismanagement of water, as evidenced by the following selective list:

  • intermittent, unreliable, unsafe and inequitable water supply in urban areas;

  • rivers turned into sewers or poison, and aquifers contaminated;

  • intractable water-related conflicts between uses, sectors, areas, States;

  • major and medium irrigation systems in disarray, rendering poor and unreliable service, and characterised by inequities of various kinds;

  • alarming depletion of aquifers in many parts of the country;

  • inefficiency and waste in every kind of water-use;

  • the environmental/ecological impacts of big water-resource projects, poor EIAs, the displacement of people by such projects and the general failure to resettle and rehabilitate project-affected persons; and so on.

The need for a radical reform of water policy is evident.

Not revision but new start

If so, the kind of transformation that is needed will not be achieved by incremental changes in the NWP 2002. If we start from NWP 2002, our thinking will quickly fall into well-worn grooves, and getting out of them will be difficult. It is necessary to put aside the NWP 2002, and start from scratch.

Reversals of past approaches

Such an exercise will involve many reversals of past approaches. For instance, reversing the usual approach of projecting a future demand and bringing about a supply-side response to meet that demand, we must start from the fact that the availability of fresh water in nature is finite, and learn to manage our water needs within that availability. This will mean a stringent restraint on the growth of ‘demand' for water (other than basic needs) which will be difficult and will involve painful adjustments; but the effort is inescapable.

A second reversal will have to be on the supply side. Primacy will have to shift from large, centralised, capital-intensive ‘water resource development' (WRD) projects with big dams and reservoirs and canal systems, to small, decentralised, local, community-led, water-harvesting and watershed-development programmes, with the big projects being regarded as projects of the last resort; and the exploitation of groundwater will have to be severely restrained in the interest of resource-conservation as well as equity.

A third reversal will have to be in relation to rivers, from massive interventions in flows and maximal abstraction of waters to letting the rivers flow and keeping interventions to the minimum. Instead of killing rivers and then trying to revive them, we must learn to keep rivers alive, flowing and healthy. A fourth reversal will have to be in the relative roles of the state and the community (from ‘eminent domain' or sovereign powers of the state to the state as trustee holding natural resources in public trust for the community).

There may have to be other reversals. The intention is not to discuss these matters in detail but to indicate the kind of changes that will be needed.

Multiple perspectives

The changes cannot be piecemeal and fragmented. They need to be integral parts of a holistic vision. One difficulty in this regard is the multiplicity of perspectives on water that need to be taken into account. For instance, consider the following:

  • the rights perspective, focussing on the fundamental or human right to water, traditional rights of access of communities (tribal or other) to rivers, lakes, forests, and other sources of sustenance and livelihoods, and so on;

  • the social justice/ equity perspective, concerned with issues of inequity in urban and rural water and sanitation services, injustices to the poor and to the Scheduled Castes or Tribes, forced displacement by major projects and deficiencies or failures in resettlement /rehabilitation, inequities in access to irrigation water in the command areas of projects, etc;

  • the women's perspective stressing the burden on women of fetching water from long distances as well as managing water in the home, with no voice in water-planning or water-management institutions;

  • the community perspective urging the right relationship between state and civil society, the empowerment of people vis-à-vis the state (or the corporates), the community management of common pool resources, mobilisation of people for local water augmentation and management, social control of water use and sanctions against misuse, voice in water policy formulation and water management, etc;

  • the state perspective, concerned with legislation, policy formulation, planning, administration, ‘governance' at all three levels, ensuring/enforcing rights, providing or facilitating or regulating water supply and sanitation services, preventing or resolving or adjudicating inter-state/inter-sector/inter-use/inter-area water disputes, prescribing and enforcing quality standards, managing water relations with other countries, ensuring compliance with international law, and so on;

  • the engineering perspective (which needs no explanation);

  • the water quality perspective concerned with the enforcement of water quality standards, and the prevention and control of pollution and contamination of water;

  • the citizen/ water-user perspectives tending to assert requirements for various uses (drinking, domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc) quite strongly, but showing poor recognition of the obligations of economical and efficient use, avoidance of waste and conflict, conservation of the resource, and protection of the environment;

  • the economic perspective that sees water as economic good subject to market forces, and argues for water markets, the full economic pricing of water, the privatisation of water services, private sector participation in water resource projects, etc;

  • the ‘growth' perspective focussing on economic growth at a certain desired rate, and tending to be impatient with social, community, rights, equity, environmental or other perspectives;

  • the business perspective, concerned with a supply response to demand, the objective being profits, professing ‘corporate social responsibility' but tending to subordinate it to the imperative of profits;

  • the legal perspective, which is not really a separate perspective, as legal issues arise in all perspectives; but specifically concerned among other things with the constitutional division of legislative powers, Centre-State and inter-State relations on water, inter-State river-water disputes, riparian law, international water law, questions of ownership and/or control of water, etc. (all these being not merely legal but also socio-political questions); and

  • the environmental/ecological perspective, concerned with the protection of the environmental/ecological system from the impacts of ‘developmental' activity, and the prescription/monitoring of remedial measures.

The foregoing enumeration of perspectives will immediately show that a multiplicity of disciplines is involved. The formulation of a national water policy must necessarily be an inter-disciplinary exercise.

Overarching perspective

If these perspectives are to be integrated and harmonised into a coherent whole, some will have to be regarded as the overarching, governing perspectives, and all others subsumed under them. In the author's view, the ecological and social justice perspectives will have to be the overarching perspectives, and all other perspectives subordinated to them. In particular, engineering and economics, which have so far been the dominant disciplines, must be firmly kept under check by ecology and by the idea of social justice.

Dharma perspective

Keeping in mind Gandhiji's firm conviction that rights flow from responsibilities, we can consider combining the ecological and social justice perspectives into a moral responsibility perspective or, in other words, an ethical or dharma perspective. Let us think in terms of our responsibility or dharma in relation to:

  • the poor, deprived, disadvantaged, or disempowered;

  • other humans sharing the resource with us, including those in our State or other States, our country or other countries, our generation or future generations;

  • other species or forms of life;

  • rivers, lakes, aquifers, forests, nature in general, Planet Earth itself.

That is the overarching perspective that this writer would like to propose. In place of the current slogan of Integrated Water Resource Management or IWRM about which he has strong reservations, he would like to offer the alternative formulation of Responsible, Harmonious, Just and Wise Use of Water.

Alas, RHJWUW is not a catchy term like IWRM. The latter term has come to stay, but it should really be understood to mean the former.