From abandonment to water abundance: Is it possible?

The earth is water rich, but water is still scarce (Source:India Water Portal)
The earth is water rich, but water is still scarce (Source:India Water Portal)

Dr. Indira Khurana, co-author of the book, 'Reflections of managing water: Earth's greatest natural resource', an initiative of the Balipara Foundation, has been working on water issues for more than a decade. In an interview with India Water Portal, she talks about her journey that led to this book, the highlights and the challenges that make this mismanaged, precious resource both secure and abundant. 

On issues concerning water:

How would you define ‘water’ today, given the complexities attached to it?

I would define water as a beautiful yet finite source, one on which our life depends, as does nature. I would also define it as the creator and the destroyer, and one that commands respect. Ignore it at your peril! 

‘When one man drinks, while another can only watch, doomsday follows’: What are your thoughts on water as a fundamental right?

Water must be recognised as a fundamental right across the world for humans to live with dignity. It is not to be used as a tool for exercising power. Water is already recognised as a human right by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and rightly so. It is now time to unpack this fundamental right into concrete ‘allocations' if you will, backed by legal reinforcement.  

Favourite quote: 'Civilisation has been a permanent dialogue between human beings and water' (Paolo Lugari, Colombia)

By 2030, the world is poised to face a shortage of 40% of water supply. What is greatest challenge we face in order to reverse this trend?

There are several challenges. Thinking and planning around water has become myopic and short term. We have also become irresponsible in water use, irreverent even. Somewhere the valuing of all things through an economic/ profit lens has also hardened us. This needs to change, and change fast. 

Per the existing ‘Water Cess Act’, industries pay for water use purely based on the quantity and purpose of consumption, which is very low. On what factors do you think that ‘industrial water pricing’ must be based, besides this?  

Some factors that need to be considered include:

    • Compensation for treating the quality of water  
    • Value of the water that is being diverted from domestic and agricultural consumption but clearly, this is an area that needs further analysis to arrive at a consensus across all stakeholders. 

Water tariff and its pricing in urban areas is hugely inefficient. How is the ‘opportunity cost of water’ relevant here? 

By definition, opportunity cost means the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. In case of urban water supply, the approach has largely been one of sourcing further and further away for meeting water demands of urban areas. This comes at a cost/ diversion of water that could have been used by other ‘closer at home' sectors, such as meeting rural drinking water or agricultural demands.  

Water has always played an important role in most religions and their associated rituals. Why then do you think we only mimic the actions today but fail to understand its true significance?

To an extent, I would relate this to a blinkered approach. Who does not know that disposing off the remains of our religious rituals will pollute the very sources we use for ‘purification’ purposes? Are we okay with the perception that the love we show for rivers – the ‘mother’ Ganga for example  is the same we show for our mother? We also do not want to take that extra effort for safe disposal – a lack of ownership, if you will  over common resources. We need to remove the veil of hypocrisy and revere water in the way this wondrous asset deserves.  

Heavy monsoons, floods and droughts, we seem to be caught in an unending cycle of water troubles. How can this chain be broken? 

This is a tough one for all of us. Some part of this unending cycle of water troubles is due to our water management practises. How else does one explain the phenomena wherein even a drizzle is enough to turn streets into water canals? The need for scientific and large scale direction of excess water to underground reservoirs in favourable areas needs to be seriously explored. This will also help restore the balance between surface and groundwater reserves. However, appropriate pollution control measures need to be in place. 

What does ‘water conflict’ imply? Is this a local phenomenon, or can it escalate to a trans boundary relationship too?

Water conflicts can take place across all scales: From a hand pump, to an urban galli or lane, within a village, across villages, across cities, across states and across countries. Water is highly political as well. There are 263 trans-boundary lakes and river basins worldwide covering 145 nations. A majority of freshwater river basins cross just two nations. However, there are 21 river basins that are shared by five or more nations. The potential of conflict is thus significant. The flip side is the opportunities this provides for cooperation and peace. 

Trans-boundary water disputes arise when demand for water is shared by any set of interests. Dialogue and sharing agreements are imperative. While nations have gone to court on occasion, the spirit of cooperation often works better. The history of international water treaties dates as far back as 2500 BC when two Sumerian city states drafted an agreement ending a water dispute along the river Tigris. 

On the book:

Most of us are aware that water is one of most crucial element for our survival. What was the underlying idea behind writing a book on water?

People do know that water is crucial and yet, apathy abounds. This is because water is something that is taken for granted. While for some it’s a daily struggle, for others it’s something that comes out from a tap. The idea behind the book was to put together, in one place, several aspects related to water since this was a felt gap. The book has been successful in bringing together various issues relating to water and also coupling data with ground experiences. The pictures have their own story to tell.  

The book is also meant to raise awareness among those who are unaware about the serious threats to water resources, and jolt them into action. For those involved in water issues, it highlights the need to look at water differently, since the writing is on the wall: We have not been great in our water management efforts and strategies. 

What was your greatest challenge in putting the book together? 

Where to stop! There are so many things that one can cover in a book on water, that putting a stop and deciding ‘thus far and no further’ was tough. 

Take away from the bookThe new slogan should be: 'Water for peace. Not war'  

One interesting thing that you learned while writing this book?

Couple of things come to mind: One was when we were putting together the chapter on 'Revering and Celebrating Water', it made us realise so many cultural, religious, spiritual aspects of water from across the world. Another eye opener was the kind of innovation that was taking place around water conservation and its quality. 

You have written about the interdependence between water and bio diversity. Could you share an example to make this link clearer?  

Take the example of forests. All planned resources need water for their survival and growth, even forests. Forests have the capacity to hold on to water and reduce soil erosion. Forested catchments have a large potential to capture rainwater. This is turn helps revive groundwater and keeps the springs, streams and rivers flowing. 

'From abandonment to water abundance', you have ended your book on a positive note. What are the 3 things an individual can incorporate, to reverse the trend of water scarcity and assure themselves of water security? 

    • Revive your relationship with water. Become involved. Respect it, revere it and celebrate it. Once the connection with the heart is established, the rest will follow. 
    • Capture, use and reuse water.   
    • Innovate and reinvent water use and management.  

For more on the book by Dr Indira Khurana, please read 'Reflections on managing water: A book review'.