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Nov 13, 2005
Approaches to a water economy

John Briscoe of the World Bank is an old India hand. He specialises in water related issues. He recently released a report entitled "India's water economy: Bracing for a turbulent future". Given the World Bank's renowned thoroughness, the report is an excellent diagnosis of what ails our water economy. But alas, given the Bank's imperatives as a money lender looking for assured, good returns, its prescriptions are likely to rile many Indians.

Let us first appreciate some succinct points made in the report. In India, "50% of precipitation falls in just 15 days... Until the 19th century, most of this [water] management was at the community level, relying on a plethora of imaginative and then-effective methods for harvesting rainwater in tanks and small underground storages."

What went wrong, then? Of course, population rose but more importantly, the government took to building huge dams and grand projects like the Indira Gandhi Canal. Local communities got disconnected from their responsibility for water security. When urbanisation began, people turned to municipalities for water. In rural India the tubewell phenomenon arrived and disconnected people from community level involvement.

The World Bank report rightly says the government is a poor maintainer of what it builds. So a Build-Neglect-Rebuild cycle has set in."There is an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance". Excellent diagnosis but what is the remedy? The Bank says private sector participation must come in and huge investments must be made to create water storage [-big dams?]. "Whereas arid rich countries (such as the United States and Australia) have built over 5000 cubic meters of water storage per capita, and middle-income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco and China can store about 1000 cubic meters per capita, India’s dams can store only 200 cubic meters per person. India can store only about 30 days of rainfall, compared to 900 days in major river basins in arid areas of developed countries."

For its relevance, this comparison is akin to something that says a Westerner has three times an Indian's body fat. If we try to match it we will come to grief. The report neglects to say that many of the western world's dams are dying and that without the maintenance neglect that an Indian is said to be prone to.

If as the Bank notes elsewhere in its report that, "all water is local and each place is different - one size will not fit all" and India has "substantial and easily-accessible aquifers" which are being depleted by pumping, the correct answer would seem to be crying out loud. Surely, instead of huge dams that consume a lot of time and money to build, displace a lot of people and have built-in obsolescence [ Himanshu Thakkar], what we need to do is trap water as it falls, where it falls and recharge surface water bodies and aquifers.

Small local tanks are more easily maintained than big dams and brings in people's involvement. In Chennai-and Tamil Nadu-, rain water harvesting [RWH] systems mandated for all buildings, has perked people's enthusiasm. Why don't slums-driven cities like Mumbai and Delhi build 50' diameter open wells in shanty towns or force pucca house owners to install RWH, to capture rain water? Instead, Delhi wants to 'privatise' water supply as though water can be conjured by entrepreneurs. Delhi of course, firmly believes everything is driven by the money that rains on it copiously and its privileged citizens diligently work to harvest it instead. The World Bank has its most enthusiastic audiences there.

Indians elsewhere, have neither given up nor are they waiting for huge investments. For those willing to look, there are several instances of success in sustainable water economies gained at very little cost. Shree Padre is an insufficiently celebrated preacher for local action for water. He conducts workshops, counsels solutions and publicises successes. It is some satisfaction that he was given the Stateman National Award for Rural Reporting in September. Padre got the same award once earlier, in 1997.

Padre's 2004 report was on three generations of the Nagaral family in drought prone Bagalkote district who spread the gospel of water harvesting. "Even last year, when it was successive 4th year of drought and there were very scanty rains, (320 mm ) Sanganabasanna’s 36 acres provided him 100 bags of jowar (120 quintals) in the Rabi season. Mallanna too had a similar level of yield,"writes Padre.

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