Water science in India - Hydrological obscurantism - A paper in Economic and Political Weekly

This article criticises the Government of India’s proposal of addressing the twin problems of floods and water scarcity in the country by interlinking rivers

This article by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay in the Economic and Political Weekly deals with the Government of India’s proposal for addressing the twin problems of floods and water scarcity by interlinking rivers. The author is of the view that the proposal is based on an outdated and dangerous idea of surplus river basins from which water can be drawn at will.

Global experience shows how damaging such plans of large-scale water transfer are to the environment, economy and livelihoods of the people. Such plans have also proved a failure to either prevent floods or provide water on a sustainable basis. It is unfortunate that water policy in India remains a prisoner to such obsolete ideas.

As interdisciplinary water science advanced globally in addressing the emerging challenges of water scarcity. The ­recent decades have witnessed ­fundamental changes in the perceptions of water governance.

The central objective of water systems governance has changed from maximising the abstraction of water from the natural sources to ensuring that the ecological status of water systems are not degraded drastically by water abstractions. This is to ensure the long-term ­sustainability of water supplies while ­accepting limited degradation of the natural ecosystems.

In this perspective, all negative externalities of water extraction projects are to be identified and valued to the extent possible, and compensations made for loss of ecosystems’ functioning, productivity and related livelihoods.

In India large-scale but reductionist engineering interventions have led to ­serious decline in the flows of rivers. Ecolo­gical degradations in downstream floodplains, estuaries and the coastal ­regions caused by lowering quantity as well as quality of water have been recorded ­extensively. The related ecosystem functions, services and productivity have got drastically damaged, causing loss of livelihoods and underdevelopment for a large population.

In India, with its wide spatial and temporal variation in natural water availability, demand for regional transfer of water was common. The proposed river interlinking project, described as the largest civil engineering project in the world, with all the gaps in information on whether the project will be economically viable and ecologically sustainable, exemplifies how governmental engineers in India have remained tied to a very traditional perception of water governance.

Numerous scientific publications and books written by independent water ­experts have questioned the justifiability of the river interlinking project and its declared benefits.

In India, the Himalayan rivers and the west ­flowing rivers of the Western Ghats carry large flows during these months. In the perception of the proponents of the river interlinking project, there is an apparent “paradox” that some parts of the country face “floods” and have “surplus” water while the other parts are “deficient”.

It is indeed necessary to divert part of natural flows for supply of water for irrigation, domestic uses and industrial ­demands. In a world where water avail­ability is limited by the hydrological ­cycle, how does a country plan its supplies? The age of supply-side affluence and inefficient use of water has obviously ended.

River science now provides clear methods for the ­identification and assessment of negative externalities of such transfers and possible damages to the ecosystem functions and services.

The single hydrological idea on which the river interlinking plan bases itself exclusively is the categorisation of river basins as “surplus” and “deficient”. There is, however, no ­accepted mechanism for arriving at such a qualification in modern water science.

By contrast, in modern water science, the movement of all drops of water flowing in a river has important ecological roles to play, albeit in small magnitudes. Diversions and extractions of water from natural flows are surely needed but their social, economic and ecological downstream impacts need to be part of the project assessment. A lot of scientific ­literature is available on the ecological integrity of rivers and ecosystem functions and services cannot be set aside by partisan policy, overt or covert.

Our water establishment needs to get away from the traditional and unsubstantiated perceptions of unilaterally ­declaring river basins as “surplus” and “deficient”. Inadequate knowledge of project proponents should not be the basis of ­depriving the negatively affected parts of the basin facilitating a de facto act of water acquisition. Water is ­renewed at the highest microlevels and the ­demand for nationalisation of rivers to facilitate regional transfers will be counterproductive.

Consideration of ecological and economic implications of the river interlinking project would promote its full costing and will ensure that water is used efficiently. The real paradox in India is the coexistence of scar­city and inefficient use of water. In exten­ding hydro-luxury to some, hydrological obscu­rantism cannot rob some others of their resource bases and ­livelihoods.

­Water scarcity in drier parts of the country needs to be ameliorated. This has to base itself on a region-specific assessment of water availability and use and should contribute overall economic benefits to the country. Gains for some and loss for ­others or the undemocratic transfer of water, depriving millions of their livelihoods and right to life, cannot be a sustainable plan for addres­sing the water problems of the country.

The author concludes that “hydrological obscurantism has to make way for modern holistic water science which will give a new foundation to water governance replacing the ­subjective and meaningless concepts of “surplus” and “deficient” basins. Only through such a transformation can India develop an assured and sustainable ­water future.”

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