Shades of blue: A symposium on emerging conflicts and challenges around water - Seminar magazine

Seminar magazine focused on a pertinent topic in October 2011, the issue titled 'Shades of blue' dealt with water conflicts and challenges in India.

The problem

(as posed by Sunjoy Joshi, Director and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Here, the author explains that intense struggles over water are giving rise to conflicts at several levels, including individual, local, regional and international. These struggles over a resource exacerbate power struggles.

cover of the Seminar issue

The 'Shades of blue', that the issue is named after, are the various narratives around water namely the following:
  • as a geophysical property
  • a commodity that can be priced and traded
  • the governance and policy framework
  • the traditions and practices associated with cultures, and above all, 
  • the larger ecology of water and water systems 

These various narratives are further elaborated on. Finally, the goal of this issue is stated as 'to outline the theoretical and evidence based discussions that describe the water saga in South Asia, in the hope that it will help advance the level of the ongoing discourse.'

Safeguarding South Asia's water security 

(Michael Kugelman, Programme Associate for South Asia, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.)

South Asia is facing a water crisis, with it's annual water availability plummeting by nearly 70 since 1950. The region suffers from several factors that contribute to water insecurity:

  • high population growth
  • vulnerability to climate change
  • arid weather 
  • agriculture dependent economies 
  • political tensions.

This paper 'asserts that more attention to demand-side water management within individual countries is as crucial for South Asian water security as are trans-national water mechanisms' and provides compelling arguments for this assertion.

Lessons from the 2010 floods in Pakistan 

(Muhammad Azeem Ali Shah, Senior Researcher, University of Management Sciences, Lahore) 

The author states that while the cataclysmic 2010 floods were triggered by climate change, the devastation attributed to them were caused by Pakistan's chosen development path and the resultant inequalities in resource distribution.

For example, the intensity of the floods was a result of the deforestation in Pakistan. The fragmented nature of the government, as in India, compounds the existing lack of communication. Thus the damage caused was much by the current social and political landscape as it was due to a natural disaster.

Hydro-politics, the Indus water treaty and climate change

(Rohan D'Souza, Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)

This paper talks about the disconnect between the manner in which water sharing treaties distribute volumes of water and the delicate fluvial ecologies and river-based communities that these flows represent. The history of water management the the Indus Basin are discussed, as also the repercussion of these management strategies on pastoral communities

Resolving inter-state water sharing disputes

(N. Shantha Mohan, Professor, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore and Sailen Routray, Faculty Fellow, Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

The paper begins with describing the various trans-boundary rivers in India, and explaining the normal categorization of rivers in India as Himalayan, peninsular, inland, and small west-flowing coastal rivers. While acknowledging that all trans-boundary rivers are a potential source of conflict, the paper points to the many treaties on water sharing as proof that negotiated sharing is possible. After an overview of the history of water sharing in India, the authors then list ways to help address water conflicts. These are divided as:

  • institutional
  • mediation
  • scenario building

Securing water commons in scheduled areas

(Shawahiq Siddiqui, Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Managing Partner, Indian Environment Law Offices, Delhi)

While access to safe drinking water is a fundamental right, embodied in the 'right to life', the actual implementation of this right is highly inequitable. This is further complicated by climate change, which affects vulnerable rural and tribal communities the most. The author presents an overview of the water law framework in India and explains how the complexity of this framework renders it inefficient. He explains that the rigorous implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) is essential to secure the resource base of communities

Ecological implications of the green revolution

(Inderjeet Singh, Professor of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala)

The advent of the green revolution in the mid-sixties has transforms the agricultural landscape of the region. Food grain production has been increased through the intensive use of water, fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides along with consolidation of land holdings ,farm mechanization, and increasing access to infrastructure. This however, has led to economic, social and environmental problems.This takes the form of over-exploitation of groundwater, monocultures with an emphasis on thirsty crops, and declining waer quality.

Water crisis in Delhi

(Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Urban settlements in India are growing rapidly, but without a corresponding increase in the capability of governance mechanisms and institutions to deal with this growth. This phenomenon, and its results are examined using the specific case of water supply in Delhi. The city is falling short of established norms in several indicators including per  capita supply, quality, duration of supply, water pressure, groundwater levels and water infrastructure. Conflicts at various levels, from those with neighbouring states concerning the sharing of raw water, and within the city over the inequities in water supply are also examined.

Water as a public good vs. water privatization

(Uwe Hoering, author and freelance journalist, Bonn)

The history of privatization of the water sector is examined in this paper. The author looks at the reasons why private sector investments were promoted, and the effects of these. It illustrates that though there is some improvement, basic problems of inequitable access to water and sanitation either remain, or worsen. It concludes that it is necessary for both public and private entities to work together.

Deciphering environmental flows

(Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, researcher in environment and development; Professor, IIM Calcutta)

The availability of abstraction technology has increased the supply of water without a real understanding of the ecological impacts of this increased withdrawal. Traditional 'arithmetic hydrology' with its focus on quantum of flows has proved to be insufficient when it comes to maintaining the resilience of fluvial systems and river-based communities. The author emphasizes that environmental flow assessment needs to be a negotiated, iterative and multi-stakeholder process.

Contested constructions of water

(Shailaja Fennell, Lecturer in Development Studies, University of Cambridge; and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge)

The understanding of water management has evolved with an increasing appreciation of demand side features. This new thinking points towards the need for interdisciplinary management. This paper suggests that 'giving a greater social contextualization to access and ownership of water resources will permit a better balance between demand and supply side aspects and involve a fuller array of stakeholders to ensure sustainable water resource management'.

Included in this issue is a bibliography that points to further reading on the various issues raised.

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