Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri
Water has immense significance which occupies 70% of the space on the planet. It is a necessary resource for life forms to survive in the planet. However, over the past two decades, water stress has been on the rise globally including India. In this context Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, and India Water Portal organized a Distinguished Lecture titled How Does India Value Water? with Shri Rajendra Singh, Waterman of India, Chairman, Tarun Bharat Singh, Alwar.
Simi Mehta, CEO, IMPRI and Moderator set the tone for the lecture by appreciating the 1992 UN’s Rio De Janeiro to recognized the significance of water and declared 22 March every year as World Water Day. In the Sustainable Development Goal era (SDG 2030), Goal no. 6 is, ‘Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All’ implies that water is an imperative abiotic resource for humanity to flourish and the recognition of the fact took more time than it should have. The theme of World Water Day 2021 is valuing water and it is most significant for the present day India.
Rajendra Singh explained the intent of UN on valuing water. He says that it is not about making money or profit out of water but giving respect in the truest sense to the water resources; valuing water should also emphasize importance on flourishing of not just human civilisation but nature as well. The value of water should be understood not on one particular day like Water Day but should be practised throughout the year.
For a healthy, happy and prosperous life, we have to help improve the state of water and equally respect it, Mr.Singh quoted; this will lead to a secured common future of mankind, he added. The focus should be on the entry points, with the indigenous knowledge and Indian wisdom, and is based on 6 Rs – Respect of water, Reduce use of water meaning skill development and efficient use of water, Retreat, Recycle, Reuse and finally, Rejuvenate.
By adopting water as an intrinsic cultural and spiritual part of oneself, mankind can progress. Explaining the forward linkages of conserving water, Mr Singh said that such practices will lead to a subsequent security in climate change, security in water and food, and every other form of securities. To use the same water for electricity, for profit making will lead to a stage of insecurity on all the fronts, including in the health and ecological front.
Mr Singh said that if Indians want to be recognized globally, then valuing water will be important because globally, only 3 R’s are being practised and India can get its foot back on water wisdom and knowledge it once cherished by staying true to the 6 R’s mentioned above. Equally important will be India’s efforts to counter disasters for a country which sees the surplus of water and the scarcity of it as disasters.
Nikita Madan spoke of what value means to different people in context to water. It might hold a social imperative for someone, a cultural entity for some and for someone like her in the planning space, the services provided in the water ecosystem helps prevent floods, elevate flora and fauna, build up recreational spaces; the value generated in all these is what holds meaning to the importance of water and water resources.
Water a Common Resource
Dr Indira Khurana shared an anecdote of her involvement in the book Making Water Everybody’s Business by saying that the involvement of individuals and community based approaches – all working towards the conservation and sustainable use of water led to the naming of the book as such. A second anecdote she shared was from the World Water Forum where she met professionals who addressed their cards as water being everyone’s business or water as business. She expressed concern on the misinterpretation of the word business and that too, on wide circulation on a global platform.
She talked about the common understanding of the word valuing and raised questions like is it only life that should be valued?, is there an end point on the issue of water security being restricted to only valuing it?. She said that the time has come to act upon the next stage of valuing water which will arise from a higher level of thinking and interpretation of the environment, of the water resources and of progress. The emphasis on Jan Andolan will be important in realising water security in India.
Although water has a role of fulfilling mankind’s basic survival needs and leaving no one behind is a true aspiration but humans should now think beyond the idea of basic fulfillment and basic security. For that, the idea mentioned by Mr Singh of water being a cultural entity will come to play. There is a need to be mentally and physically equipped to reach that potential of understanding and appreciating the presence of water.
Threat of Monetizing Water
The Chicago Stock Exchange recently launched future trading in water which means that demand and supply of water can be predicted prior to a certain time period and using mathematical formulas, a price can be attached to water. Those who wish to get access to water have to buy water at that calculated price. This is a gamble and to view water through this lens of ‘trading’ is questionable, Dr Khurana commented.
Dr Alok Sikka said that there is an understanding amongst the masses that water is a scarce resource now and needs to be conserved but that realisation is not big enough so far and needs to be much more. So, water shouldn’t be mechanised or boiled down to as something that can be traded or priced but should hold a social and ecological meaning.
Be it culture, religion, education, environment; everything is connected to water. For economic development too, water is essential as it is a key resource. That being said, it also important that the governments and different institutions should make efforts to conserve this valuable resource so that there is no misuse or overuse of it.
He further said that managing water is not just an engineering solution but is based on integrated approaches. For socially acceptable water solutions, there has to be a community driven approach that keeps in view the local ecology. Only then, Dr Sikka says that there would be a holistic and an all round solution for water’s value system.
He then talked about the importance of resilience in food system, water system and ecological system in tackling climate change which is one of the biggest threats now. The entry point of any resilience action is natural resources and within natural resources, water acts as the entry point since it has correlations with the other resources. So, assessing water quantity and water risks is important.
Finally, water security is not about water availability but ‘accessibility’ as well, Dr Sikka quotes. The inclusive approach should be pushed forward via gender equity and social inclusion. With the changing climatic patterns affecting air and water making its unfortunate and uncertain contribution to water risks.
Secondly, the changing lifestyle and the changing dietary habits shifting the water usage, the multiple dimensions of water demands have to be internalized. The present practice has been to focus more on water supply while the actions should be oriented for managing the demand side, be it for domestic and industries.
Madan shared that 40% of the population will not get access to drinking water by 2030, approximately 2 lakh people die every year in India due to lack of access to safe and clean water.On the policy and development front, which Madan believes will bring corrective changes and reforms, she commented that work has been going on gradually and steadily and the goal is soon to be realised with time.
Madan took note of 2012’s National Water Policy that speaks of improved management of water resources, she gave instances of the government working like the ‘Holistic Management of Urban Water Resources’ that works on conserving rivers, wetlands and other water bodies in urban spaces. An initiative to make realise every city that it comes out with its own Urban River Management Plan, which can come into practice gradually, and to mandate incorporation of water management practices in the city’s Citizen engagement should become the gradual focus.
Rajendra Singh suggested The country needs a water literacy movement wherein skill development in efficient use of water and the same being incorporated in the culture and behaviour of the country is something to be worked upon. Dr. Khurana located the concept of राष्ट्रीय जल विरादरी (literally, National Water Fraternity) following the direction of Rajendra Singh, has been successful in bringing in discussions by creating small pockets of parliament for rivers.
The government too is emphasizing on its importance and brought the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ATAL JAL) to improve ground water management through community participation. An integrated approach of all ministries and organizations working cumulatively is required and the issue of water needs to be seen as a nexus of Food-Water-Energy.
Sustainable Agricultural Practices
He further pointed out that linking of crop pattern with the rain pattern will be an important tool; Agriculture is the most essential or the only way to reach a AatmaNirbhar Bharat, he says. To solve the climate related crisis in agriculture that is affecting the farmers of the country along with leading to food insecurity, is probably the need of the hour and demands utmost attention and policy focus.
The ‘community driven decentralized approach of water and natural resources management’ that has been in the workings of the Agri sector and for domestic cooking (biomass) should be taken ahead as a tool to adapt and mitigate changes in the climate. The requirement also, is to approach Science with sense.
Dr Indira Khurana pointed that the cause of water conflicts arise not just in cities but can be inter-state and inter country as well. Water has a quality of being used as a tool for peace but instead being used as a tool of weapon. Delving deeper into the issue of water crisis by explaining that people from the villages migrate to the cities in large numbers (water that was supposed to be for the rural population is being used to feed the urban masses) hoping to get better access to resources including water.
The issue remains that water is not being proportionately used. She thus raises the question why a place like Delhi still cannot be called a water secured place? This wicked policy issue can be and should be best resolved by first focusing and securing the water needs of those who tend to migrate and the vulnerable population who are in dire need and from whom the water rights have been ‘snatched’. Otherwise, it will lead to more uncertainty and more conflicts.
The Way Forward
On the issue of gender, Dr Khurana stated that women understand the importance of water and the importance of continuity of water. Despite all issues, women tend to make the best efforts possible to manage and conserve water. These efforts should be taken to the cities where women can lead and bring effective water reforms. If जल ही जीवन है (Water is Life), do we really acknowledge it?, she questions.
Dr Alok Sikka pointed out that the water patterns in India are very diverse and need localised intervention measures. Speaking about Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s work on Climate Smart Villages, where an integrated approach was taken for natural resources management, crop, livestock, fisheries, custom hiring centres, et cetera, was demonstrated across 150 villages and spanning different districts with positive results. The concern and focus is also how fast and how best the different climate Adaptation Plans can be all scaled up, where work is being carried on.
Dr Sikka mentions that ‘Water budget’ based land and water usage planning is the need of the hour and this adequate allocation of resources along with studying the vulnerability of an area will lead to better frameworks for developing water based projects and initiatives. Participatory groundwater management, participatory aquifer management and participatory water management for better water management is required.
Nikita Madan said that there should be city level and basin level plans for the same along with its integration in the Masterplans. These are some of the long term plans for ensuring policy level integration. For short term policy intervention, she mentioned an example of building buffers or other related structures to conserve river water. The need will be to make policies accessible and implementable at the ground level.
Rajendra Singh shared some insights on the interlinking of rivers by saying that it won’t make India drought and flood free but rather there needs to be a linkage in the mind and soul of the society with the rivers. Secondly, he criticises the government’s half hearted pledge that in the mission of building pipes and making accessible water, the government will only focus on the former but to actually work on the latter will be a challenge; only communities can make that happen.
He reinstates the meaning of ‘environmental flow’ of rivers by pointing out the flawed concept of engineers tagging them with mere numbers and percentages whereas it should be about respecting the diversity of the agro-ecological-climatic aspect, respecting the rights of the rivers, and respecting the cultural, social and spiritual aspects of the river. Only then, a true ‘environmental flow’ can be decided upon. Rajendra Singh finally urged to take ahead this conversation and to build a team of water and climate experts to solve the respective problems.