National Water Policy - An alternative draft for consideration by Ramaswamy R Iyer - Economic and Political Weekly

This paper in the Economic and Political Weekly presents the contours of an alternative water policy document by Ramaswamy R Iyer.

The paper sets forth for consideration a broad national perspective on the nature of water and on its prudent, wise, sustainable, equitable and harmonious use. The Ministry of Water Resources is at present engaged in revising the National Water Policy 2002. Iyer is of the opinion that instead of trying to make changes in the 2002 Policy, the Ministry should put it aside and draft a new policy, starting from first principles.

The alternative water policy discusses a wide range range of issues like water as a public trust, water as a right, water use priorities, water conflicts, water allocation, institutional arrangements, inter-state river water disputes, inter-country water allocation, basin level coordination, inter basin transfers, water resource development projects, groundwater, local water augmentation, water use and land use, desalination of seawater, role of PRIs in water management, corporatization/privatization of water supply, water markets, water pricing, water and women, water quality/pollution, droughts, floods, climate change and water, and information system and research.

Some of the sections of the document have been summarised below -

  • Preamble - There is a growing and widespread sense of a water crisis, arising from estimates of the availability of water and pro­jections of future demand. This policy statement proceeds on the basis that much of the crisis is of our own making through the gross mis­management of water as well as unsustainable ideas of ‘develop­ment’, and that a major rethinking on water policy is called for.
  • Need for a new National Water Policy - This policy statement is concerned with approaches, perspectives and princi­ples, and not with statistics, targets or programmes. The starting point of this document is the recognition that a radical rethinking on water has become necessary because there has been serious mismanagement of water in this country, leading to a near-crisis. These problems doubtless call for improvements in efficiency, technological innovations, institutional reform, and better ‘gov­ernance’, but going beyond these, a major change in thinking and orientation is necessary. Such a rethinking would have been necessary even if the phenomenon of climate change had not supervened. A water policy formulated in the light of that rethinking will remain valid despite climate change, and will provide the basis for adjust­ments necessitated by that phenomenon and its impacts on water.
  • Nature of water - The change that has been advocated above must be based on a clear understanding of the nature of water, as briefly set forth in the paper. Water on planet earth is an integral part of the ecological system, sustaining and being sustained by it. From a human perspective, water is many things in one: a basic life-need and right; an amenity; a cleaning agent; a social good; a requirement for eco­nomic activity (agriculture, industry, commerce); a means of transportation; an occasional manifestation as floods; a part of our social, political and cultural life; and a sacred substance. Water is at the same time a local resource, a State resource, a national resource, and a regional resource. The understanding of water outlined above is the bed­rock on which this water policy statement rests.
  • Overarching policy perspectives - Water comes from, and is dependent on, the ecological system. Ecological concerns and imperatives must therefore govern all planning and action relating to water at all levels and scales. It is the duty of both the state and the citizen to ensure the protection, preservation and conservation of all water sources and of the larger ecological system of which these form a part. 
  • Right thinking on rivers, wetlands, water bodies - Ecology includes rivers, but some special guidelines regarding rivers are necessary because they have been much abused in this country despite being worshipped as divinities. The alternative policy document makes a set of statements that should constitute the new policy in respect of rivers such as “A river is not a drain. A river doubtless ‘drains’ its catchment, but to consider it mainly as a ‘drain’, i e, as a conduit taking the runoff to the sea, is a reductionist view.”
  • Policy reversal: Restraining growth of demand - The economist’s language of supply and demand is inappro­priate in the case of water. The restraint in the growth of demand urged here is not in respect of the basic water requirements of human beings and animals but in respect of agricultural, industrial, commercial, recreational and other demands for water.
  • Questioning projections of demand - The author makes the following key points in this section -
    • As was mentioned in the Preamble, projections of future demand are close to or exceed availability, causing a sense of crisis.
    • However, behind the projections lie not merely population numbers, but also (a) inefficiency and wastefulness in all water uses, and (b) ideas of development and conceptions of the good life that generate a competitive, unsustainable demand for water, make an excessive draft on all natural resources and in particular water, and cast a heavy burden of pollution and contamination on water sources, cutting into availability. In brief, the crucial factor underlying the water crisis is a combination of a poor use of water and ‘greed’ in the Gandhian sense. This makes for a large ‘water footprint’, as part of a large ‘ecological footprint’.
    • Confining the discussion for the present to questions of efficiency and technology, strenuous efforts need to be made to optimise what is obtained from each drop of water in every kind of water-use. Major economies are possible and necessary in every kind of water use.
    • Appropriate legal and fiscal instruments must be devised for promoting efficiency, encouraging economy, minimizing waste and recovering usable water from waste, in all uses.
  • Water policy and science: A reorientation This section of the alternative policy deals with the dual role of science in relation to water policy: a basic foundational role and an instrumental role.

The policy in conclusion states that the ecological and social justice perspectives will have to be the overarching perspectives.  The ecological and social justice perspectives can in turn be combined into a Moral Responsibility perspective, or in other words, an Ethical or Dharma perspective. In particular, it is necessary to go beyond the language of rights and think in terms of obligations or responsibilities. In line with that approach, and in place of the current advocacy of Integrated Water Resource Management or IWRM, it seems desirable to adopt the alternative formulation of Responsible, Harmonious, Just and Wise Use of Water as our slogan or mantra, though that phrase cannot be abbreviated into a catchy anagram.

Beyond water policy

At the heart of all water-related conflicts lies a competitive, unsustainable demand for water. That demand, leaving aside the basic water requirements of a human being, is for water for various uses – industrial, commercial, agricultural, etc – and these in turn arise from the pursuit of ‘development’. Restraining the growth of demand for water would therefore require changes in our ideas of development and of the good life. The water crisis is part of a civilisational crisis. Our relationship to nature and Planet Earth must change, and this calls for a major transformation in our ways of living. This goes beyond water policy.

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