Forget Prometheus and remember Bhagiratha: Wrong and right thinking about rivers ' - Shri Ramaswamy Iyer s lecture at School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (June 2011)

One of the foremost experts on water management in India Shri. Ramaswamy R. Iyer shares his view on Wrong and Right Thinking about our Rivers.
22 Jun 2011
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“Current economic philosophy exalts consumption and growth. If we are hypnotised by visions of 8% or 10% growth, we are bound to ‘demand’ more and more and still more water; and either government engineers or private companies and their engineers will come up with supply-side answers in the form of large projects which will cause even greater distress to the rivers”. 

Tehri Dam across Ganga . Source: gangaji.htmTehri Dam across Ganga
Source: gangaji.htm

I am very grateful to Prof. Sudha Bhattacharya for having invited me to this Seminar. I was not sure whether what I have to say would fit in well with the theme of this Seminar, but she persuaded me to say yes, and so here I am.

At the outset, before going on to my observations about rivers, let me say something about ‘science’ as that word figures in the title of this Seminar. Good water policy must be based on good water science. Everyone will agree with that, but there may be different understandings of what ‘science’ means. Our administrators, planners and engineers may point to Bhakra Nangal, the Rajasthan Canal, Sardar Sarovar, Tehri, and other projects, as instances of the application of Science and Technology to the management of water resources. Going beyond India, some may point to the gigantic dams in the USA, the Three Gorges Project in China, and so on, as impressive achievements of science. However, water science is not the same thing as water engineering. A project may be very good from an engineering perspective but not so good from a broader perspective that encompasses environmental, ecological, social and human concerns. In short, a marvel of engineering may not necessarily be good science; it may even be bad science.

I have mentioned water science and water engineering. It is necessary to go further. Water is a complex subject that involves a whole range of disciplines: hydrology, hydraulics, civil engineering, other engineering disciplines; agricultural sciences and allied subjects; sciences relating to the industrial use of water; water science as part of earth science; ecology in general, environmental sciences, sciences relating to flora and fauna; sciences relating to seismicity; economics, financial analysis; sociology, anthropology, study of customs and practices, including religious aspects; law (including customary law), ethics, political science; history, cultural theory.

Let me now proceed to my subject, namely, wrong and right thinking about rivers. Our perceptions about rivers and our relationship with them have been changing over the centuries. In earlier times civilizations arose near rivers, and human beings not only met their water needs from rivers but lived with rivers in a close relationship. In this country, we thought of rivers as divinities. I am not romanticising the past: even in those times, human beings by their existence and activities must have generated some waste. However, their capacity to harm rivers was limited, and well within the self-cleaning power of the rivers. The river was part of the landscape, lives, culture and religion of a people. The people’s relationship with the river was part of their relationship with nature as a whole. They did not consciously use the word ‘ecology’ – that word was perhaps unknown at the time – but ecology in fact governed their lives.

Then came the era of control. The subjugation or conquest of nature became a conscious human objective. This in fact goes back to ancient times and inspired the Promethean legend, but the human capacity to subdue nature became marked only after the industrial revolution. It was then that the Promethean view came into its own. With that world view, the engineer became or tried to become the master of rivers. It is interesting to contrast the Promethean legend of the west with our own Bhagiratha legend. Prometheus is said to have brought fire to earth in defiance of the gods, whereas Bhagiratha brought the Ganga through prayer. However, the Promethean attitude to nature came into India with western engineering, and was ardently embraced by our own engineers and administrators, and by our intelligentsia as a whole. The modern urban view of rivers is very well described in the following lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

We should perhaps substitute the word ‘dams’ for ‘bridges’ in that quotation to reflect Indian thinking. In this country dams became symbols of development in the popular mind. Dam-building was an important part of economic planning in India. In the year 2000, I was told that there are over 4500 large dams by ICOLD definition in India. That number must have gone up since.

Consider the things we do to rivers. By ‘we’ I mean all of humanity and not any particular group or country. The flows of rivers are obstructed with dams and barrages; the abstraction/diversion of their waters is regarded as the proper ‘use’ of their waters; in-stream flows (particularly flows to the sea) are regarded as wasted; in many cases, they are not allowed to flow to the sea; their waters are impounded or diverted, reducing downstream flows, affecting the river regime, harming estuaries and inducing the incursion of salinity from the sea; they are jacketed within embankments; loops in rivers are sometimes cut through and straightened; rivers are treated as if they were pipelines to be cut, turned and joined; waste, pollutants and contaminants are inflicted on them far beyond their coping capacity; the floodplains of rivers are occupied, leaving no space for the accommodation of floods; sand is mined from their beds; bore-wells are sunk into their beds for extracting the water below, reducing base flows; and so on.  

All this is neatly captured in a catchy light-hear-ted statement reported to have been made by an American water engineer: “I love pushing rivers around” (quoted in Ken Conca’s book Governing Water). I am sure that represents the attitude of our own water engineers and water bureaucrats, though they may not explicitly say so. The apotheosis of that kind of thinking, that cavalier attitude of manipulating rivers, was reached in the Inter-Linking of Rivers Project announced with fanfare in 2002. Curiously enough, the advocates of that project invoked the name of Bhagiratha, though their approach was really Promethean. ‘Inter-linking’ was a bad enough expression, but our former President Dr. Abdul Kalam was fond of using an even more incongruous term: ‘Networking of Rivers’. Fortunately the project is now in the doldrums, but it has not been formally abandoned, and may get revived at any time.

Dammed Sharavathi Source: India Water PortalDammed Sharavathi
Source: India Water Portal

A bit later than the engineering approach to rivers came the economic approach, and the two converged. The Dublin Statement of 1992 contained some good principles (1, 2 and 3) but principle 4 declared water to be an economic good, and that laid the foundation for the treatment of water as a commodity, subject to market forces like any other commodity. That view has grown in strength and is widely held now. It is vigorously propagated by the World Bank and ADB through the conditionalities of their lending, and has had considerable influence on the thinking of some of our State Governments. It was that kind of economic thinking that lay behind the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority enactment. That philosophy also lay behind the leasing of 20 km of the Sheonath River in former MP, now Chattisgarh, to a private corporate body for a water supply scheme. That caused public outrage and the Chattisgarh Government tried to cancel the lease, but ran into legal complications; the case is still unresolved.

The engineer (or some engineers) would like to control and manipulate rivers; the economist (or an economist of a certain persuasion) regards rivers and water in general as a ‘resource’ to be fully exploited for human use, and also as a commodity subject to market forces. Neither view leaves room for thinking of rivers as living things, as ecological systems in themselves and part of larger ecological systems, and as having an existential and not merely an instrumental value. Current economic philosophy exalts consumption and growth. If we are hypnotised by visions of 8% or 10% growth, we are bound to ‘demand’ more and more and still more water; and either government engineers or private companies and their engineers will come up with supply-side answers in the form of large projects which will cause even greater distress to the rivers. At the same time, economic growth and urbanisation will mean an enormous generation of waste some of which may find its way into the water sources.

The ways of thinking that I have been talking about are well illustrated in the language of the water technocracy and bureaucracy.

  • Consider the equestrian metaphor ‘harnessing rivers’ for various purposes: we were apparently wrong in thinking of a river as a deity; it is really a horse to be mounted and ridden
  • The engineer also talks about ‘river training works’. What does that mean: that a river is a pet dog or cat or a circus animal to be trained by us?

Kosi Embanekment Breach, 2008. Source: Embanekment Breach, 2008

  • ‘Flood control’ is another unfortunate term which has had serious consequences. I do not need to say much on that subject because it is by now widely though not universally accepted that floods are natural phenomena which will occur periodically in a river; that they cannot be prevented or controlled; that attempts to control them may on occasion have adverse consequences; and that the best course would be to learn to live with them, be in a state of readiness to deal with major floods when they come, respond promptly when the emergency occurs, minimise the damage, and derive some benefits
  • A term that is in common use is the ‘hydroelectric potential’ in a river, but please think about it. There is no such potential in the river itself, unless there is a major waterfall in it. In a running river we cannot generate electricity forthwith; we have to raise the water to the desired head and drop it down pen stock pipes on to the turbines; and for raising water to a head we have to build a dam or a barrage on the river. It is not the river that has the hydroelectric potential; it is the dam or barrage that creates the potential. When we talk about the ‘hydroelectric potential’ in a river, what we mean is that there are possibilities of constructing a dam or a barrage. However, that possibility comes at a price: the environmental, social and human impacts and consequences. The hydroelectric potential is therefore also a potential for harm
  • A related term is a ‘run of the river’ (RoR) project. It is a very misleading term. A layman might think that the project entails no structures on the river, and generates electricity on the river as it runs. Nothing can be farther from the truth. An RoR project does involve structures on the river, sometimes very big ones. Without a dam or a barrage it is not possible to create the head needed for power generation. What RoR means is that there is no storage, and that after passing through the turbines, the water goes back to the river. However, there is a break in the flow – a dry patch - between the point of diversion and the point at which the water is put back into the river. If there is a series of cascading RoR projects on a river, there will be a series of such dry patches in the river. That cannot be benign to the river. Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute, Dehra Dun, has an excellent presentation which brings out clearly what a cascade of RoR projects does to a river
  • Next, we have the term ‘regulated flows’. In justifying dams and barrages on a river, the claim is made that they provide ‘regulated flows’ downstream. It is a curious claim. Dams and barrages generally have an adverse impact downstream. They alter the river regime, bring about changes in water quality, affect aquatic life, cause difficulties to riparian populations downstream (farmers, boatmen, fisher folk, etc), reduce the capacity of the river to clean itself, diminish the re-charging of aquifers, lead to a deterioration in the condition of estuaries, and induce the incursion of salinity inland from the sea. They also alter the relations between upstream and downstream populations, making the latter vulnerably dependent on the former. These are more or less standard consequences of building a dam or a barrage on a river. That is why lower riparians almost always object to upper riparians building structures on the river. Against that background, it is extraordinary for the upper riparians to claim that they are actually conferring a benefit on the lower riparian by providing ‘regulated flows’. No lower riparian will accept this
  • One more example of strange language is ‘minimum flow’ or ‘ecological flow’. ‘Minimum Flow’ implies Maximum Abstraction, leaving a small quantum reluctantly in the river. As for‘ecological flows’, all flows are ecological; any diversion or abstraction will have an ecological impact, ranging from minor to major. Interventions cannot be wholly avoided, but they can be minimised. The right approach is not minimum flows, but minimal intervention in natural flows
  • May I add that I am not very happy about the expression ‘river development’ in the title of this seminar. It seems to me to carry the same kind of Promethean, hubris tic, manipulative connotation as the term ‘river training’ that I referred to earlier

Let me proceed from terminology to practical consequences. The results of the prolonged dominance of the engineering-cum-economic view of rivers are there for all to see. The Yamuna, river of India’s capital, is a sewer. The Ganga, our holiest river, is not much better. Many other rivers in the country are in distress. The Palar and Noyyal in Tamil Nadu have turned into poison. The Sabarmati in Gujarat is a dead river. If some water flows in it now, it is water from the Narmada put into the Sabarmati treating the latter as a mere conduit; this is not a case of the revival of a river. Returning to the Yamuna, its floodplain and even part of its river-bed have been occupied. There is no need to multiply examples. The most dramatic demonstration of the destructive power of the economic-cum–engineering view is the death of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, brought about by the diversion of two rivers for the purpose of providing irrigation water for the cultivation of cotton for export. Nothing can illustrate the folly of the Promethean view better.

The Sabarmati Riverfront Source: Sabarmati Riverfront

The title of my talk was ‘wrong and right thinking about rivers’. I have so far been talking about wrong thinking. What is right thinking? The answer is simple. If we have identified wrong thinking, the opposite is right thinking. To put it very briefly, instead of killing rivers first and then trying to revive them, we must learn to let them live and remain in a healthy state. However, I must say something more than that. In various meetings over the last few years, chaired by the Chief Minister of Delhi, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, and the Prime Minister himself, I have been repeating a few slogans on the subject of rivers, and very recently, I have re-stated them in an Alternative National Water Policy that I have prepared for the consideration of the Government of India. The following is my statement on rivers:

  • 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 run-off to the sea, is a reductionist view
  • Rivers are natural phenomena and not human artefacts. They are not pipelines to be manipulated at will, turned in different directions, cut, rejoined, welded
  • A river must flow. If it does not flow, it is not a river. Apart from the ecological functions that a river performs as it flows, its capacity to cope with pollution and regenerate itself depends crucially on adequate flows
  • ‘Minimum flows’ or ‘ecological flows’ are misleading concepts. The right approach is not minimum flows, but minimal intervention in natural flows
  • A river needs space. When floods come, as they will from time to time, the river needs space for spreading and accommodating them. The natural floodplain of a river is an integral part of the river and should not be stolen from the river. A river needs its bed. The river-bed is an integral part of the river and must not be abused.
  • A river is an inseparable part of the hydrological unity; and a river- basin is an integral whole. Any intervention in a river must be guided by a knowledge of its likely impact (a) on water in any other form, and (b) on any other part of the basin
  • The health of a river would depend on the health of the ecological system of which it is a part. It follows that the protection of the river will call for the protection of the system as a whole

The Bedthi River in Uttar Kannada. Parts of this river have been recently declared as community reserves Source: Bedthi River in Uttar Kannada. Parts of this river have been recently declared as community reserves

May I in conclusion draw your attention to a series of monthly lectures or presentations that I am organizing at the India International Centre under the overall title ‘Living Rivers and Dying Rivers’? The first event under that series was on the Ganga on 4 June, and the second will be on the Yamuna on 11 July, with presentations by Manoj Misra and I hope by Prof. Brij Gopal. The third will be on the Bihar rivers (Kosi, Bagmati) by Dinesh Kumar Mishra on 23 August. Further programmes are being worked out. I invite you to attend as many of these programmes as you can and enrich the discussion.

I conclude by encapsulating whatever I have been saying in three sentences:
Let the rivers live.
Let us learn to live with rivers.
Let us forget Prometheus and remember Bhagiratha.
Thank you.

This lecture was a part of the seminar “The Sustainable Development of Indian Rivers: From Science to Society” organized by the Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Environmental Sciences, on the 13th June 2011.

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