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Crises like Cauvery will grow common without improved water management

Though one crisis has passed, experts warn that the nation’s poor management of water is likely to result in more such conflicts in the years to come.

india Updated: Oct 04, 2016 13:02 IST
Picture dated 15 September 2002 shows Cauvery river water being realesed from the Kabini Dam at Heggadadevankote province about 165 kms south-west of Bengaluru.
Picture dated 15 September 2002 shows Cauvery river water being realesed from the Kabini Dam at Heggadadevankote province about 165 kms south-west of Bengaluru.(AFP)

After a four-day standoff, Karnataka has heeded the Supreme Court’s wishes and released water from the Cauvery River to Tamil Nadu. Though one crisis has passed, experts warn that the nation’s poor management of water is likely to result in more such conflicts in the years to come.

“There is no way India can avoid water conflicts if we continue to manage water the way we do,” says Mihir Shah, water policy expert and member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.

Even the Rs. 4,00,000 crore the country has spent on large and medium dams will not be enough to prevent recurrent droughts, Shah said. “However much water we may store in dams or extract from below the ground will never prove enough if we continue to squander it the way we have been doing.”

Across the nation, water is growing scarcer. In 2001, there were 1,816 cubic metres of water available for every Indian. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 1,545 cubic metres, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Central Water Commission projects there will be less than 1,140 cubic metres per person by 2050, about 60 percent of the 2001 figure.

Shah feels that public mismanagement of water is among the main reasons for the nation’s water disputes. He has argued for combining two institutions — the Central Water Commission, which deals exclusively with surface water, and the Central Ground Water Board, which handles only groundwater — neither of which has been reformed for several decades.

“The left hand of surface water does not know what the right hand of groundwater is doing,” says Shah.“Rivers get their water flows in the post-monsoon period from groundwater. But over-extraction of groundwater in these river basins has led to base-flows choking up,” he says, referring to both the Cauvery and Mahanadi water conflicts.

But inefficient bureaucracy is only a part of the problem. Water conservation experts say things will not improve unless the citizenry does its part as well.

“People expect the government to make water available in whatever quantity they want and consider it their right to extract water from tube wells and canals unlimitedly when the government is not able to supply, but they do not want to take responsibility for any conservation efforts,” says Jyoti Sharma, the president at FORCE India, an NGO dedicated to water conservation.

FORCE’s research has found that, around the world, attempts to manage water through water policies, aimed directly at controlling water, don’t work unless a place has already reached a crisis and there is hardly any water left to share.

To forestall such a crisis in India, Sharma advocates using market forces to control water usage. Under such a scheme, manufacturers who use water efficiently would receive more favourable policies and market valuations than their less efficient counterparts. Rice, for example, would be given a lower Minimum Support Price if it were grown using less water per kilogram. This might encourage farmers to adopt water saving methods of growing rice.

Arjen Hoekstra, professor at University of Twente in Netherlands, agrees that creating such market-based incentives for farmers would go a long way in controlling water scarcity in India.

Hoekstra has developed a concept called “water footprint,” based on the fact that all agricultural and industrial production consumes water that can be saved. Our lifestyle choices, including the food we eat and the things we use, also have a water footprint that is reducible. A cup of coffee, for example, requires 140 litres of water, whereas 35 litres is required for preparing the same cup of tea, according to Waterfootprint.org.

Hoekstra feels that the government would do well by agreeing on water footprint benchmarks for the most important crops like rice and wheat.

“Awareness raising on water footprint among farmers, companies and consumers will be key in reducing water footprints down to sustainable levels, since broad awareness is necessary to create the political will to make the transition needed,” says Hoekstra.

But he warns that the government will have to do its part to help farmers adopt more sustainable methods.

“Changes, even for the good in the long term, may be painful in the short term. Inevitably farmers will be put in a difficult position, where they need to make investments that are hard to make,” Hoekstra says. “That’s why the government needs to support the farmers in the right direction. The companies can also play their role by investing in a supply chain that makes it more sustainable to invest in such farming practises.”

Perhaps in line with such concerns, Niti Aayog has funded a study by The Energy and Resources Institute to examine the water footprint of India’s long-term energy scenario. The study, which is underway, seeks to understand India’s water demand even as water continues to be a stress resource in the country.