Water management - Mounting challenges and responses - A report on the three day seminar jointly organised by KSCSTE and C Achutha Menon Foundation, Trivandrum from the 21st to the 23rd December 2012

This three day national seminar was jointly organised by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE), Thiruvananthapuram, and the C Achutha Menon Foundation (AMF), Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and included presentations and discussions on a range of water related themes such as water scarcity, water conservation, commercialisation of water, water conflicts and water management.

The seminar aimed at creating awareness and triggering a dialogue among scientists, academicians, researchers, activists, as well as lay people on the emerging challenges related to water resources, water quality and water conservation in the state of Kerala. The seminar was inaugurated by Shri V M Sudheeran, Ex MP and former speaker, while Dr Rajasekaran Pillai, Executive Vice President KSCSTE, delivered the keynote address with the felicitation by Shri M P Achuthan, MP.

The seminar included discussions under five different themes related to water issues that included water scarcity, water conservation, commercialisation of water, water as an new area for conflicts and water management.

Seminar on water management

The three day seminar on water management at the Achuta Menon Foundation, Trivandrum, Kerala

Session I: Water scarcity

This session was chaired by Dr P Nandakumar, Regional Director, Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Kerala and included the following presentations:

1. Water literacy by Professor M K Prasad, Former PVC, Calicut University
Dr Rajashekharan from Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) presented the paper on behalf of Dr M K Prasad. The session on water literacy highlighted the meanings of literacy as "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written material associated with different contexts and involved a continum of learning to enable an individual to develop his or her knowledge or potential and to participate in the wider society".

However, in the presentation, it was argued that the meaning of literacy had changed in modern times and was not associated with awareness about issues and acting on them, but only with education. This was evident in the way in which the water resources were being handled in the state and how there was a very little role that literacy had in changing the poor condition of water resources in the country through activities for conservation of water. For example, inspite of the rich tradition India had in the past, many were totally oblivious of the water wisdom that we had in olden times and  the technologies that our ancestors used to preserve and conserve water. No attempts were also being made to learn from the past and value water in the same way as our ancestors.

The presentation made references to the Rig Veda, The Ramayana, the Indus Valley civilisation where there was ample evidence that indicated that there was abundant knowledge on technologies for construction of tanks, water management and sanitation, canal irrigation, use of instruments such as rain gauge etc. The presentation referred to the current situation of water where the world was running out of freshwater and there was increasing pressure on water resources from the agriculture and irrigation sector, industries.

Groundwater over pumping was one of the serious problems that the country was facing. Privatisation and commmercialisation were some of the current problems and access to water was becoming a problem day by day. There was a need to have a water literacy campaign, developing awareness among the population was also very important along with encouraging optimum use of water, water quality testing, water conservation education, education of the population on groundwater recharging, rainwater harvesting, recycling and preservation of water. The presentation ended by pointing that the NGOs had an important part to play in increasing the literacy of the population on water related issues.

2. Groundwater management in Kerala: Challenges and prospects by Dr P Nandakumar, Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Kerala
This presentation by Dr Nandakumar highlighted the unique characteristics of the water resources in Kerala and the challenges incurred in groundwater management in the state. The presentation highlighted the unique geographical, topographical and demographic situation of Kerala with its high population density, as high as 6 to 7 months of rainfall throughout the year ranging to about 3000 mm annually with 65% attributed to the south west monsoon and 20%  to the north east monsoon. It was a common thinking that with its 44 rivers with lengths of more than 15 kilometres, around 53 reservoirs, 50,000 tanks and ponds and only 47% of the pumping derived from groundwater, Kerala was in a very comfortable situation with respect to water.

However, the water problems such as acute water scarcity during summers, poor quality of water still existed. Why was this so? Was it due to management or mismanagement? However, the reality was that 68% of the rainfall in the state was lost as runoff to the sea. The availability of groundwater was only 1.4% of total resources for 3% of the population. Massive crystalline rocks led to 88% less recharge of groundwater as the water retention capacity of the rocks was very less. Limited aquifer thickness plus fast depletion with no chance for recharge imposed limitations on groundwater management. Water quality issues included high salinity, nitrates, fluorides, iron as well as very high levels of bacterial contamination.

At the same time, over exploitation of groundwater in some hydrogeological zones had contributed to permanent lowering of water table and salinity intrusion into coastal aquifers. There were more than six million open wells in Kerala and around 95% of the wells had been found to be bacteriologically contaminated, while those in the coastal areas were found to be under the threat of salinity intrusion. The growth of the bottled water industry in Kerala had also been found to lead the over extraction of groundwater in the state while the groundwater extraction for irrigation had been found to be decreasing due to less and less land being available for agriculture in the state.

The problems in groundwater management also included a lack of integrated approach in looking at rainwater, surface water and groundwater, poor mechanisms for optimum use of available resources, and in exploring mechanisms for rainwater harvesting and artificial groundwater recharge, developing mechanisms to manage poor water quality issues in the state.

kerala backwaters

The Trivandrum-Veli - Akkulam backwaters (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

3. Management of inland water resources of Kerala for the conservation of aquatic biodiversity by Professor K V Jaychandran, Dean, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, Kochi
Dr Jaychandran highlighted the situation of the inland water resources and the aquatic biodiversity in the state that was being affected by the poor water management practices, the undaunted and aggressive urbanisation and industrialisation, which were taking its toll on the water resources of the state and the threat to the biodiversity in the state. He highlighted that there were a total of 210 freshwater fish varieties in Kerala, 20 species of freshwater prawns and 17 varied species of shrimps. All these organisms had habitat preferences and were very sensitive to variations in the quality and quantity of water.

Thus, quality and quantity management of water was very important and there was an urgent need to involve the community in the conservation of resources, water management, species evolvement and resources management. He also described the case of Technopark in Trivandrum where construction of buildings had led to the gradual death of a stream in the area, which had abundant freshwater prawn species not found anywhere else, which had gradually disappeared following the death of the stream.

4. Management of water for irrigation and household uses:Changing patterns in Kerala. A presentation by Dr M Lathika, Head, Department of Economics, NSS college, Karamana
The presentation highlighted the impact of the growing urbanisation, increase in population and the diversified uses of water on availability of water and its impact on agriculture in the state. For example, urbanisation had led to a change in agricultural patterns with a major shift in cropping patterns that had not only tampered with regular water recharge and discharge systems, but had also drastically changed the water demand regime for irrigation , driving huge investments in irrigation under utilised.

Recent years had also led to gradual decrease in rainfall patterns in the state with variation from place to place leading to severe water stress. This has also had an impact on cropping patterns with a gradual shift from water intensive farming especially paddy to less water intensive crops. There has been a marked decline in paddy and banana cultivation in the state and a marked decline in land under agriculture and water needed for agriculture in the state. Thus irrigation projects had not been utilised to the maximum and household consumption of water has drastically increased with urban population consuming more water than rural.

5. The dying rivers of Kerala by S Shreedhar, Thanal, Thiruvananthapuram
Shreedhar from Thanal highlighted the terrible situation of the rivers in Kerala by giving the example of the biggest river, the Periyar river in Kerala. He highlighted how the lack of concern for the river along with industrialisation and discharge of effluents and toxic wastes, pesticides had gradually led to the deterioration in the water quality of the river and was gradually leading to the death of the river. All upper catchment areas of rivers in Kerala were dumped with pesticides and river Periyar was no exception with as high as 270 factories dumping highly toxic wastes such as dioxins in its waters. The hazardous waste act has also not been found to be implemented.

Thanal narrated their experiences of going from factory to factory to collect samples with the help of Cochin University and some of the factories were asked to be shut down. However, the Chief Minister intervened as a guarantee and factories were started again. The environmental impact assessment studies showed chemical contamination, but nothing was being done, in fact, trade unions also supported factories while people fighting pollution were blamed as anti developmental activists in the process.

Shreedhar argued that the pollution in the rivers was increasing day by day with highly toxic wastes such as ferrous sulphate being found in the river Pampa. Inspite of this situation, no one wanted to talk about it. It was not possible to remove these harmful chemicals through filtering. The upper catchment areas of rivers were thus being polluted because of factory wastes and the middle ones due to waste dumping. No one was concerned and no one was doing anything about it, but this was a very serious situation. Half of the wells in the state were being converted to septic tanks, plus motors were being put on wells.

The questions that were thus important were, how can we do management, how can we learn to use water efficiently. Did we use hand wash and detergents before? These are known to be extremely hazardous to the river waters. Thus it was important to understand that we were killing our rivers due to changing life styles and needs and we urgently needed to reverse this process to save our rivers, a valuable water resource and an integral part of our culture.

River Pampa, Kerala

A view of the third largest river, the Pampa in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Session II: Water conservation

This session was chaired by Dr Biju Kumar, Head, Department of Aquatic Biology, University of Kerala and included the following presentations:

1. Water conservation and climate change: Issues and challenges by Dr Biju Kumar, Head, Department of Aquatic Biology, University of Kerala
This session highlighted the impacts of climate change on water resources and highlighted that climate change had led to scarcity of water resources and crisis of management, which in combination with other factors such as urbanisation and industrialisation had led to more demand than supply of water. For India, climate change was predicted to lead to severe water scarcity and increased vulnerability because of decrease in rainfall, erratic rainfall patterns, melting down of snow from the Himalayas, sea level rise, increase in evapotranspiration. Thus, climate change was predicted to affect the water cycle and have a huge impact on the Indian economy, agriculture, food security etc.

Climate projections indicated that variations in rainfall and temperature would lead to shorter, but extreme rainy days, cyclonic storms, sea level rise, decline in groundwater availability. The rise in sea level may impact the coastal cities and coastal communities and the fishing industry. Salt water intrusion in the river mouths had also become a common phenomenon, which could have repercussions for coastal aquifers, a major source of urban and regional water supply systems

The session highlighted the importance of the need to focus on water while responding to climate change. Addressing water resource management was thus a priority and an inescapable part of reducing vulnerability and promoting adaptation to climate change.Thus a balance between mitigation and adaptation had to established at the policy level. Water governance needed to be expanded and integrated with non water sectors, access to technology, science and information needed to be increased for sound planning. The session highlighted the need for collaborative water management at community level by incorporating all the stake holders. The session argued that water conservation, efficiency and reuse strategies needed to be used to reduce the impact of climate change and carbon footprint of water use.

2. Rural drinking water supply and sanitation: Role of local organisations by Dr Veerashekharappa, ISEC, Bangalore
This session presented the findings of a study that described the case of a village that brought about a change in water supply and sanitation situation through community participation at different stages from planning, implementation, operation and maintenance and how the community developed a sense of ownership in sustaining assets created during the programme.

3. Connecting the last mile: Paradigm shifts in water policy in India and governance challenges to ensure drinking water to the end users in rural areas by Dr N C Narayanan, IIT Bombay
The session highlighted the three phases in the provision of rural drinking water in India. The Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) in 1972-73 visualised water as a social right to be provided by the government and thus adopted a supply driven approach for providing drinking water to rural areas. The Swajaldhara programme that marked the beginning of the sector reforms project in the late 1990s introduced community based management of rural water supply that was demand based where users got the service that they wanted and were willing to pay for with a paradigm shift based on the principles of cost recovery and decentralisation.

This was followed by the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) that followed the demand led approach, but corrected some of its flaws and emphasised water as a public good, with reliance on multiple water sources and need to build local capacities through various mechanisms, especially the need for PRIs and local communities to prepare and implement the water security plans for the management of resources and storage and maintenance of data to be fed on to a national level MIS on rural drinking water. All these needed capacity building at various levels and most importantly at the Gram Panchayat level.

The session described the findings of the study  that aimed at documenting the paradigm shifts in policy and the related governance challenges in the provision of rural drinking water in the past decades. The analysis found that the capacity gap was a running theme with related issues of lack of transparency and accountability of the governance system.This was most acute in the current phase where the advantage was of reclaiming the state, but that posed a huge challenge to the gram panchayat that demanded challenges of capacity enhancement at the local level.

The presentation highlighted that reaching the unreached would be very difficult without the active involvement of the stakeholders and that streamlining of the latest programme that had divested much of the responsibilities back to the state was essential and that none of the flagship programmes could work without the active involvement of the civil society. The presentation ended by suggesting that a preliminary plan to develop capacities of educational institutions and civil society organisations to help local institutions was necessary.

River Nila, Kerala

A view of the river Nila, the second largest river in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

4. Forest influence in water conservation by C K Karunakaran, IFS, Former chief conservator of forests
The presentation highlighted the important role of forests in the conservation of moisture.The presentation informed that the forest ecosystem normally advanced towards the climatic climax state and any interference during the climax state could lead to lowering of the stage to subclimax stage. The mature floor possessed different layers from undecomposed litter to fully decomposed plant residue and pores of various sizes mainly resultant of the root decay. Studies showed that total rainfall in a locality was higher by 20% in forests as compared to non forested areas. Thus forests helped in increasing precipitation. They also played a role in interception. Thus precipitation in the normal course was intercepted within the canopy and also within the forest floor of the organic matter even preventing runoff during heavy rainfall in a fairly stocked forest floor. The surface soil also remained well protected under the able cover of litter, the intervening decomposed layer and the elaborate root system.

The absence of the litter layer as a result of fire or other biotic factors could cause considerable soil disturbance. In such a situation, the surface flow would carry the displaced soil resulting in aggravated soil erosion. The national forest policies of different countries had laid down rules that asked for at least one third of the geographical area to be under forests and that it could be extended upto two thirds in the hills and one fifth in the plains. The extent of the total forest area in India was less than 20%, the climax forest being much less than 5%. In Kerala, the total extent of forest area was 23%, the climax forest being 7% to 8%. The extent or content of the forest being much less than the desired level , there was a strong case for complete protection of atleast the available forests so that it could progress towards the climatic climax state.

5. Sustainable water management - Rainwater harvesting: Problems and prospects in Kerala by Dr P Rajendran Nair (Department of Economics, NSS College, Pandalam) and Dr Madhava Menon (Department of Economics, NSS College, Chertala)
The presentation provided the details of rainwater harvesting as the accumulation and storage of rainwater for reuse before it reached the aquifer. Rainwater harvesting provided an independent water supply during regional water restrictions and in developed countries was often used to supplement the mains supply. Rainwater harvesting systems were appealing as they were easy to understand, install and operate. They were effective in green droughts as water could be captured from rainfall where runoff was insufficient to flow into dam storages.

The session argued that rainwater harvesting was the viable solution in the monsoon rich state of Kerala and that the common structures feasible for Kerala were sub surface dykes, nala bunds, check dams. Participatory watershed programmes thus needed to be implemented in the state and mass awareness programmes on groundwater conservation needed to be arranged at the panchayat levels in all districts.

kerala backwaters

A view of the Vembanad lake in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

6. Contested borewells: Apartment boom and groundwater crisis in Kozhikode city corporation by Dr Rose Mary George, Providence College, Calicut
The presentation highlighted that the apartment boom associated with urbanisation was not an odd phenomenon in Kerala. House construction activities in Kerala showed an increasing trend since mid seventies. This had been having an inverse impact on the groundwater levels in the city that were being depleted at alarmingly high levels and the number of borewells in the region had been found to be increasing dramatically. Groundwater was being used in these constructions through borewells on a regular basis. This was because there were no groundwater rights, wells were private and owners could extract as much water as they wanted as land and water rights were not separate.

The presentation highlighted a case study of the groundwater crisis in Kozhikode, Chevayoor where flats were constructed in 2007, one well was present and one borewell was constructed, no sanction was taken. When people went there to stay, an open well was constructed of 5 meter diameter in which pipes were fitted and  a borewell was made inside this well. People started using this well water and water levels in 13 neighbouring wells declined and they had to dig deeper. A study was consequently done by CWDRM and the Groundwater Department who advised to control groundwater use and the residents were forced to take the water authority connection, the well had to be registered, and rainwater harvesting had to be made compulsory. Rules such as the Kerala Groundwater Regulation Act 2002 and the Kerala Municipal Building Rules section 109 A were ignored that made permission for wells mandatory. Also, penalty for breaking these rules was also very less, observed the study.

Session III: Commercialisation of water

This session was chaired by Dr Prakash Nelliyat, National Biodiversity Authority, Chennai and included the following presentations:

1. Water conservation challenges of Kerala by Varghese C Thomas, Chief Subeditor, Malaylam Manorama
The presentation informed that the wetlands played a vital role in maintaining Kerala's rural water balance, but were being ignored in the broader developmental agenda by the government. Even the Gadgil report was misinterpreted by vested interests. For example, an airport was being constructed at Aranmula  and inspite of the criticisms directed against this move, it was awaiting some last minutes clearances that would lead to destruction of a 2500 acre lake like wetland system without consideration to its environmental impact. Flats were coming up, huge multiplexes were springing without any regard for water. The presentation highlighted the urgent need to restore and conserve water by using rain water harvesting techniques  in the state and have a water secure household, ward, panchayat to solve the water problems in the area and restore the environment and the water balance in the state.

2. Water as a human right by Professor Sanjay Biswas, Professor and Dean, IISc Bangalore
The presentation highlighted how the inalienability of water as a right was recognised in the UN General Assembly resolution (2012) when Bolivia with many other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia sponsored the resolution  'clean water as a human right'   as much as right to life and health were human rights.

Thus, right to water implied indivisibility of the right. Irrespective of economic, social, religious status and the gender of the person, the state was obliged to ensure availability of clean water for drinking and sanitation to a citizen. In reality however, accessibility was conditional even today. Questions surrounding water rights in India were also issues about access. In large parts of India, caste based barriers to accessing water, especially drinking water were still prevalent. Laws did exist to deal with this situation for example, s.3 (xiii) of the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989 dealt with problems of schedule castes and schedule tribe communities with respect to access to water and made it a punishable offense for persons belonging to the non SC/St communities to obstruct usage of water or spoil such sources of water.

Traditional managers of water belonged to the SC/ST communities, but irrigation laws in some places did not acknowledge the roles of such traditional water managers and their rights. Also in the context of communities such as the fisherfolk, the changed policies of the state also tended to affect them adversely. Governmental policies were often inconsistent with the constitutionally given and judicially interpreted right to water. Thus, water in India traditionally was also a great divider further reconfirming these caste based hierarchies leading to differential access of people to water.

3. Perspectives in biodiversity decline and infraction of water access: Mastering the challenges in the riverine flood plains of Kuttanad, Kerala by K G Padmakumar and Noble Abraham
The presentation highlighted the fact that agriculture was the biggest user of water in Kuttanad and needed to be conserved and judiciously utilised as improper management of  water resources led to destruction of the natural biodiversity. The decline and loss of species here had been far worse than that of the forest and grassland ecosystems. Kuttanad was known for cultivation below mean sea level and water was one of the most abundant resources in these places and the people of Kuttanad had been denied the basic human right of access to clean water. Water samples collected from different sources showed that turbidity, pH, iron content and coliforms exceeded permitted limits prescribed by Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Pesticides were also detected in river water samples. In this context, the most appropriate solution was to develop sources of freshwater locally.

The presentation also informed that Regional Agricultural Research Station, Kumarakom had developed a eight hectare wetland structure to a water harvesting structure and it was found that an impervious layer of clay soil prevented percolation of water into the reservoir. A treatment plant was fitted to treat water to remove high iron content and acidity of the soil, which used reverse osmosis. The filtered water qualified to the BIS drinking water standards, which suggested the potentialities of using derelict swamps and polders in Kuttanad as water harvesting structures to improve the water situation in the area.

Kuttanad, Kerala

A view of the Kerala backwaters at Kuttanad (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

4. Solving water disputes in India: Issues,challenges and strategies by Dr Malli Gandhi, Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities, Regional Institute of Education, Mysore
The presentation highlighted the poor and gradually deteriorating state of water resources in the country and aimed at highlighting, analysing and understanding the current water situation in the country and the importance of water as a national resource of the environment at all seasons, preparation of the national draft water policy, politics of water agitations in the different states, adverse effects of water scarcity, importance of watershed projects, analysis of the drought situations due to lack of water and how to promote proper consensus on the distribution of water, to promote awareness among school children about the importance of water resources as a part of their educational programmes, and to suggest a few measures to overcome the difficult situation of the water crisis in India.

5. Market environmentalism and equitable access to water: A study with reference to Kerala by Reinhard Philip, Research Scholar, S.N Collge, Kollam, University of Kerala
The presentation critically analysed market environmentalist models in the management of water resources and its impact on equitable access to water, with reference to Kerala. It highlighted that water management supply had undergone a dramatic transformation, around the world, over the past three to four decades. With privatisation of water, ownership had been transferred from nationalised to private companies. The transformation of the water supply industry to private hands was one of the the best examples of neo liberalisation of nature. Water supply management in Kerala was also undergoing a transition from state controlled system based on public water systems to projects that ran on the basis of market environmentalist principles that were being supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. All these posed as serious challenges to the access of common people to adequate quantities of water.

6. Privatisation of water: How far it affects the availability of safe drinking water by Anju Ranjan, Research Scholar, Department of Law, University of Kerala
The presentation highlighted the phenomenon of privatisation of water in India, which it argued was related to ownership of water resources and involved decisionmaking on who could be given water and would not be given water i.e. access and equity considerations in the distribution of water resources. Selling bottled mineral water had become a money spinning venture for private organisations. However, it had also been found that private water was not regulated and had been found to not meeting the required quality standards. Water companies had been found to take advantage of outmoded legal principles and purchased large tracts of land solely for indiscriminately abstracting groundwater for sale while destroying wells and water sources on which the local communities depended on.

India was the tenth largest bottled water consumer in the world. The national water policy gave priority to drinking water and at the same time to water privatisation, which was against the established norms of equity and social justice. The case of Kerala (Plachimada issue) was a clear case of water being exploited undemocratically. Water privatisation resulted in conflict at the core of democracy, a struggle between economic development and the need of the people. The draft national policy, 2012 proposed a limited role for the state in public services. The new policy proposed that state had to function simply as a regulator or facilitator, and that the public delivery needed to be handed over to the local communities or private sector, instead of exploring how to make 24/7 delivery possible by strengthening the capacity of the public sector.

Session IV: Water: The new area of conflict

This session was chaired by M R Ramesh, Former Director, Groundwater Department, Kerala and included the following presentations:

1. Testing the waters: Engaging China on transboundary governance by Dr Nimmi Kurien, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
This presentation highlighted the growing water thirst and energy hunger in China that had resulted in a concerted national campaign to develop and augment the country's huge hydropower capacity and its implications for India. China had been thus witnessing  a virtual dam building boom in the wake of the reforms in the energy sector and much of the expansion had been happening in the western region, which had been projected as the energy powerhouse of the country. The provinces of Yunnan and Tibet were emerging as focal points for the hydropower expansion and many dams were being planned on the major international rivers such as the Salween, Mekong and the Yarlung Tsangpo, which flowed into some of the most populous regions of South and South East Asia and thus had implications for the quality and quantity of water flows received below.

The presentation argued that given the interlinkages across the region, designing norms of benefit sharing, negotiating trade offs, allocating risks and burdens on collective goods and bads needed to be part of a regional deliberative process. At the outset, efforts towards effective transboundary water management needed to recognise its evident synergies with other public goods such as peace and stability. This would turn on the capacity and willingness of India, China and other countries in the region to begin a conversation on regional public goods such as water management and biodiversity conservation with benefits accruing to all countries sharing international river basins.

kerala backwaters

A view of the backwaters in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Interstate water dispute and the role of India's federal institutions by Dr Midatala Rani, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Mysore
The presentation highlighted the increasing disputes in the different states in India and the limitations faced in solving these disputes. The presentation argued that Indian water dispute settlement mechanisms were ambiguous and opaque. A cooperative bargaining framework suggested that water could be shared efficiently with compensating transfers as necessary, if initial water rights were defined and if institutions to facilitate and implement cooperative agreements were in place. The presentation also emphasised the role of complementary investments and the need to expand the scope of bargaining to include these where feasible. Delayed agreement over water could encourage inefficient non cooperative investments in dams, irrigation, agriculture and industry more generally.

The problems were compounded by the entanglement of interstate water disputes with more general center state conflicts and with everyday political issues.  The impact of these could be reduced by a more efficient design of mechanisms for negotiating interstate water disputes. The presentation discussed some of the possibilities including a National Water Commission functioning independently of daily political pressures, a federated structure incorporating river basin authorities and water user associations, and fixed time periods for negotiation and adjudication.

3. Water rights in India: Revising the state role by Dr T M Joseph, Principal, Newman College, Thodupuzha, Kerala
The presentation discussed the right to safe drinking water as an important and essential component of right to a dignified life and the provisions of the Indian constitution that had upheld the water rights of citizens in article 15(2), Article 21. In tune with these constitutional provisions, the government of India had been addressing these responsibilities through various schemes, over the last six decades. A number of programmes like national Water Supply and sanitation Programme, Minimum needs programme, Accelerated Rural water supply Programme, Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, Swajaldhara, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission had thus been launched.

However, the presentation argued that, despite these schemes, there was an ineqitable distribution and consumption of water along various towns and settlements and the worst victims were the people below the poverty line both in rural and urban areas. Water accessibility to all had thus still remained an unfinished goal of the government. It thus called for a revisit at the traditional role of the state in the protection of water rights.

4. The river Periyar by T. P Sankarakutty Nair, Former Head, Department of History, University College, Trivandrum
The presentation highlighted the importance of river Periyar as one of the biggest rivers in Kerala of the 44 rivers in the state and informed that the Periyar was one of the biggest and the most polluted rivers starting from Idukki to Trichur. The history of Periyar was associated with the history of Kerala. However, the river was now increasingly in a pitiable condition. Pesticides had been started to be dumped in the river since the 1940s and now the pollution had assumed dangerous proportions. This was leading to increasing health problems among the populations such as abdominal ulcers, asthma, skin diseases, thyroid, depressions. Sand mining had also started and was also found to be affecting the flow of the river. The presentation pointed at the inefficiencies of the system that led to gross mismanagement of rivers and the lack of proper implementation of the policies and laws that were devised for the protection of the rivers and the need to take up urgent steps to revive and protect the rivers in Kerala.

Periyar river, Kerala

A view of the Periyar river, the largest river in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Session V: Water management

The chairperson for this session was Dr Vivekanandan and included the following presentations:

1. Water resources management: Challenges and responses presented by Dr Shankhamugam Pillai
This presentation highlighted the problems related to water resources in Kerala that included variations in precipitation in different regions of the state, more discharge to the sea, the prevalence and gradual increase in sand mining, deforestation had led to the reduction of water bodies. Dumping of wastes into the rivers, lakes and reservoirs had led to increasing pollution of water bodies, increasing use of groundwater for commercial purposes was also creating a problem of overextraction of groundwater beyond replacement levels.

How long could all be mute spectators, was the question that the presentation raised. The government indeed needed to do something, but it could not act on its own. The process of conservation of water resources needed considerable public participation, behavioural changes along with strengthening of institutions that could bring about a change through a participatory approach

2. Conservation challenges of wetlands: The life support systems and some important suggestions to protect them by Dr V S Vijayan, Salim Ali Foundation
The presentation informed that wetlands included all water bodies on land such as lakes, tanks, ponds, rivers, rivulets, reservoirs, backwaters, estuaries and paddy fields, which were the most productive ecosystems in the world. Yet, they continued to be ignored and often referred to as water logged areas or waste lands out of sheer ignorance and this even extended to reclamation of wetlands for developmental activities.

Besides being primary sources of water, wetlands offered 21 services that could be classified into four categories namely:

  • Provisioning services: Direct services that included production of food such as fish, paddy, fruits, rhizomes, water supply, provision of fibre, fuel wood, fodder, supply of medicinal plants
  • Regulatory services: Intangible or indirect services such as climate regulation, water regulation, determination of groundwater level, minimising the impact of natural hazards such as floods and storms, erosion control, soil formation, water purification and waste treatment
  • Habitat services: Providing habitats for flora and fauna, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, primary production
  • Cultural values: Spiritual needs of people, recreational, aesthetic and educational facilities

These wetland ecosystem values when converted into monitory terms were worth Rs 22,24,350 per hectare annually as reported by the TEEB in 2010 (The economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) as a part of the UN Millenium Assessment of Wetland values hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme in collaboration with various other agencies. The value of wetlands in Kerala amounted to about Rs 1, 22,868 crores.  However, the loss of wetlands to the tune of 1,67,812 ha (49%) in seven years in Kerala and 20 lakh hectares in nearly 10 years in the country was a manifestation of the gross ignorance and sheer insensitivity to this valuable resource, which was being destroyed at the cost of the current developmental activities.

The presentation ended by arguing that it was high time for the country to have a National Wetland Conservation and Sustainable Use Strategy and Action Plan to ensure water and food security. Such as policy needed to have:

  • National Wetland Restoration
  • Wetland Register
  • Paddy Reserve
  • Ban on the use of chemical pesticides
  • Ban on conversion of wetlands and paddylands
  • Ensure minimum environment
  • Establishment of a National Wetland and Water Authority (NWWA)
  • A State Wetland and Water Authority (SWWA)
  • A Wetland Conservation and Management Committee (WCMC)

3. Water resources challenges in the urbanising world: A study on Chennai city by Dr Prakash Nelliyat, National Biodiversity Authority, Chennai
This presentation highlighted the huge growth in urban population and its impacts on the water sector in urban cities in India such as Chennai and argued that mobilising huge quantities of water for meeting the increasing urban needs was a big challenge. The efficiency of the public water system was questionable as sources were highly uncertain. Groundwater in the city was highly contaminated. People who did not have access to public sources of water used groundwater indiscriminately supplied through tankers leading to drastic declines in groundwater levels affecting livelihoods of people. The quality of groundwater as well as surface water had gradually deteriorated due to indistcrmnate discharge of sewage, industrial effluents and poor solid waste disposal.  However, socially vulnerable communities were compelled to use this water and are thus exposed to a range of water borne diseases.
Unplanned urbanisation with land use changes had also had significant impacts on storage structures and drainage canals, which had historically discharged flood water into the sea. Urban ecosystems were built enviroments and sustained a range of economic activities including industrial, commercial, residential and institutional structures. Hence infrastructure had to be planned not only for the population, but also according to the requirements of the economic sectors. The presentation identified the need for a paradigm shift in urban water and land management through coordinated efforts of various stakeholders. The presentation suggested:

  • Strict enforcement of the Groundwater Regulation Act, The Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, protection of tanks and eviction of Encroachment Act
  • Wastewater should be collected and treated properly
  • Water supply and sanitation facilities need to be enhanced
  • Proper land use planning and management is essential
  • Rainwater harvesting to be encouraged
  • Encouraging the public, NGOs, educational institutions, media and the citizens to play an important role in putting pressure on the local government to enforce land use and other rules, and maintain property like rivers and tanks

4. Management of water for irrigation and household uses: Changing patterns in Kerala by Dr M Lathika, Head, Department of economics. N S S College, Karamana
The presentation argues that although the state of Kerala had been richly endowed with resources, the steadily growing population and the increased and diversified water uses had constrained its general supply, and the recent changes in the climate had made matters even more difficult. The shifting crop pattern had not only tampered with water recharge and discharge systems, but also changed drastically the water demand regime for irrigation driving the  huge investments on major irrigation projects hugely underutilised. The highly invasive nature of urbanisation in Kerala villages in where food grain cultivation was the chief means of livelihood till recent past, heavily tilted the balance of water distribution towards the populace in the newly urbanised valleys whose per capita water consumption suddenly tended to shoot up at the cost of those at the top of the mountains who traditionally were mandated to conserve the environments where rivers originated.

Chalakudy river, Kerala

A view of the river Chalakuddy in Kerala (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

5. Time to plan for the revival of rivers in Kerala by Dr Latha Anantha, Scientist, River Research Centre, Trichur
The presentation started by highlighting the technocratic view that continued to be used to view rivers  that looked upon rivers as resources that could be engineered to any extent to suit the needs of human beings, which had led to building of more and more dams and diversions across rivers and extracting more and more water from rivers for different purposes. A river was thus never looked upon as a living entity, but as a resource to be compartmentalised, harnessed to be used by different users for different purposes.

What happened to the river, its natural flows, the basic and livelihood needs of the people at the downstream, the harm caused to the ecology and aquatic diversity were thus rarely the concern of any bureaucrat or the government. The early drying of rivers and the increasing saline ingress inland were indications that most of the rivers in Kerala did not reach the sea in summer. The presentation argued that rivers were thus being managed without understanding or accounting for their fragile nature.

The presentation argued that strategies for river revival that needed to be backed by an enabling policy and legal protection for rivers. There was no law for protection of rivers in India. The presentation ended by highlighting some of the necessary policy-legal prerequisites for an enabling river restoration strategy that needed to be considered were:

  • New large dam projects in the western ghats needed to be subjected to basin level cumulative impact assessments
  • Origins of rivers to be declared as no go areas as recommended in the WGEEP
  • Integrate river operations management for rivers with hydropower projects upstream into national Water Policy and State water Policy
  • A policy for allowing environmental flows backed by law remaining free flowing stretches of rivers as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) under the EPA 1980

4. Water footprints of energy options and sustainable development by Dr K G Thara, Head Disaster Management, Kerala
The presentation informed that majority of the freshwater resources were used up in power plants whose prime reason was to create comfort zones such as cooling systems and other amenities in our day to day life. Present technologies in nuclear, coal and natural gas power plants resulted in massive withdrawal of water from rivers, lakes and aquifers. They also resulted in warming up of the water causing thermal pollution, killing of aquatic life, increasing toxic algal blooms and decreasing the sustainability of our water supplies.

The presentation aimed at analysing the current water impacts of various means of electrical production with a view to zero in on the choices available to conserve water and energy in a sustainable manner in a warming world and recommended that the best option was to exploit non conventional sources of energy, specifically through expansion of wind nergy and photovoltiac solar power to conserve the dwindling water sources.

5. Management of drinking water in Kerala by Vadayar Ramanan , Social Activist
The presentation highlighted the rich water resources available within the state of Kerala such as 3000mm of rain, 44 rivers in the state, the highest density of dugwells, 71 urban and 1978 rural water related schemes, presence of backwaters, lakes, canals, streams, traditional water bodies. Despite this, the present situation was that around 3 million people were facing acute drinking water shortage in summer. This also had to do some of the disadvantages in the state such as the topography with highlands, midlands and coastal areas due to which the rainwater met the sea in less than 24 hours. The rivers in the state were suffering from high levels of pollution with insecticides, pesticides, bacterial contamination as well as from the negative effects of sandmining. A very high level of the population suffered from water borne diseases as 90% of the dugwells in the state were polluted. The presentation argued that the solution was thus to conserve every drop of water through rainwater harvesting, watershed management, effective legislation to prevent pollution and over extraction of water sources and close monitoring of water resources in the long run.

The seminar ended with the valedictary function that highlighted the need to understand our real relationship with water and thus use water by treating it as a valuable resource that was not to be wasted, but used wisely based on principles of equity and with the understanding that access to water was a basic human right.The valedictary address was delivered by Dr V S Vijayan who discussed some of the issues and perspectives on the Gadgil report.