Deciphering environmental flows - An article in Seminar magazine - Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

Author: Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

This article published in the Seminar 626, October 2011 argues that our current state of knowledge of water systems and ecological modelling related to flows of water, which includes projecting a single quantitative figure of water requirements, is inadequate. Such a unilateral prescription of environmental flows or water requirements of aquatic systems as a method for the resolution of water conflicts may actually become the source of many new conflicts.

The article argues that since it is important to provide water supply to meet human requirements, engineering interventions, large or small, are needed. However, any engineering intervention, however small, will invariably impact the ecosystem processes and services related to the source. The challenge is thus to arrive at acceptable environmental flows based on an agreeable trade-off in which the abstraction of water is socially acceptable, and ecologically sustainable so as to ensure that all the damages to livelihoods and ecosystems are adequately met.

Assessment of environmental flows must be subject to a proper understanding of the diverse ecological processes and ecosystem services related to water systems. Assessments of environmental flows can only be made in relation to identified degradation of ecosystem processes and services, like that of the movement and growth of specific fish species. At present, however, only a small part of the totality of ecosystem processes and services related to rivers, lakes or aquifers can be clearly identified and thus subjected to such assessment processes.

The article ends by arguing that all stakeholders related to water systems need to increasingly understand the basis, scientific or otherwise, of various claims of assessing environmental flows, so that the conflicts between economic demands and the ecological sustainability of water systems can be proactively resolved and a more robust holistic process of decision making on India’s rivers, lakes and aquifers can be put in place.

A copy of the entire article can be downloaded from below: