Water owned by all and used by all

This blog seeks to introduce the idea of common pool resources, on which there is a whole new body of work coming up.

This is cross posted from my blog (link). I wanted to introduce the idea of common pool resources, on which there is a whole new body of work coming up lately. This had won Elinor Ostrom the 2009 Nobel Prize. For water sector, I believe this theory can definitely yield some new insights. And it all starts with a question "Who owns the water?'

This is a contribution to the blogathon held by Tulika Books in support of the amazing work that they are doing in popularization of science and publishing for children.

I have always been fascinated by the influence of arts (literature, music, poetry) on science and technology over the centuries. This influence I believe can be tapped in helping children and the youth in understanding, exploring and studying science. My work with a philanthropic organization (Arghyam) which focuses on water issues has helped me in observing the societal dynamics which come into play whenever a community shares a common resource. It is imperative today that we work across all the levels of society to help create an awareness which should then lead to a decisive and observable impact.

Some of the finest and apt descriptions of scientific observations are found in poetry. It isn't a mere accident that literature (and poetry) flourished much before any formal scientific discipline was recognized. What is poetry if not the expression of the world and its myriad dynamics. These dynamics is also what science deals with, though with an eye of explaining and utilizing the observed phenomena to our benefit. The world in which we live has always held the fascination and intense interest of people in every era and every era marked its enhanced science by the use of materials and tools that it used (stone age, bronze age etc)! In the context of water, the course of history has been a rather interesting one. For instance the development of hydrology as a discipline! 

Caption:Leonardo Da Vinci, Study of Turbulence in Water (Image:www.ownfineart.com)

Now, how many of us know that it was a painter, an artist who first explained the hydrological cycle? It was Leonardo Da Vinci who described and explained how water moves through the various realms of the environment. And that water passes through the major river systems countless times, summing up to volumes much greater than those contained in the world’s oceans. There are a couple of interconnected themes that I am referring to. Environmental issues like water conservation, deforestation etc and the awareness towards them need to start from the schools - just like the "grassroots" approach in community development. The science which is taught in our schools today is in need of a similar kind of creative thinking, which could act as a potential trigger for their interest in science. How fascinating it could be to see them paint their perceptions of environment, its resources, natural phenomena etc. After all, Da Vinci too had a similar process of creative thought leading to a hypothesis and thereon to a much widely followed explanation of hydrological cycle. Poetry, music, painting - these are all forms of creative expression which can help kids understand questions like who owns water, why does water get angry and how can we share water. From our study in Tamil Nadu's coastal district of Tuticorin which fringes the Gulf of Mannar a threatened marine biodiversity hotspot, we observed that the kids took a great interest in the Sun Sand and Sea clubs run by an NGO in the villages there. This was integrated with the activities at the school and extended outside it by the community development centers in every village. Here is a short video showing some of the kids at the club and the activities at the club.


These Sun Sand and Sea clubs help children understand their immediate environment which is the sea for most of them. Then it helps them learn what the sea gives them (most of the kids come from fishing families) and introduces them to the treasures of marine life. The clubs organize poetry recitals, talks by elders from the community, walks on the beach and painting competitions. These activities have worked to a very great measure as the kids now possess a better understanding of their daily lives and its connection with the sea. Introduction of conservation issue at this point becomes rather easy, and we observed that most of them could see for themselves the need to treat the resource with care and to keep them clean. The gradual build up of ideas and introduction to conservation works with kids. And this needs carefully planned activities integrating various forms of arts into it.  

Caption:Water -- A Common Pool Resource

To answer a specific question which I thought would be interesting for children to know is - who owns the water? The answer to this question won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in economics for the year 2009 (She shared this with Oliver E Williamson). Isn't it pretty intriguing that just what the kids are asking, is what the scientists are trying to answer too? And it gets the highest prize for advancing the understanding of mankind in a specific field! For who owns the water... the economists call it a common pool resource. Much like the way a school's water cooler is used by all the students in the school, and no kid can refuse or deny the other from drinking from it. Imagine the same situation on a larger scale, of that of the earth. The rivers which we have, can be used by all the people and no one can be excluded from taking the benefit of it. Such a resource is called a common pool resource. Similarly the forests, fishes in the ocean, irrigation canals - are all common pool resources. In a common pool resource, it has to be shared and governed in a manner that the interest of all the people are considered. Like say, the school's Principal decides how will the water be used if in case there is a water shortage, and he decides it in such a manner that all the children get water from it, to quench their thirst! The rivers, the oceans, forests etc are governed in a similar manner, by the Government of the State or the Country under which such a resource is located. The ownership now seems to be clear. It is owned by all, and used by all. The real problem is how does the government manage this resource that all the people get it equally! This is the question which has led to such a crisis that we see today...the rivers drying up due to over exploitation, irregular water supply in cities and water pollution. The answer to the governance problem does not seem to be simple. There is a lot of research and sociological experiments going on in various parts of the world, to come up with solutions which can help us manage our resources in a manner that every one gets it yet it does not get depleted or polluted. These now need answers, which to some degree Elinor tries to answer with her theory for governing common pool resources. Before I end this, the title of this post is a line from Walt Whitman's poem Song of Myself from his work Leaves of Grass (I highly recommend you to read this poem). This line could describe the importance of Water in our lives equally well and so I have used it here, which has also helped me introduce a beautiful poem by Whitman.



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