Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Water Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

Shitanshu Shekhar Shukla /New Delhi

Rainwater will have to be brought to the centre of our water policies and programmes.

THE ancient mariner had it right. In Coleridge's poem, the glittering-eyed, becalmed sailor famously bemoaned the paradox of “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”. Water is by far the commonest substance on earth and yet scarcer commodity than ever before. 97% of the total is seawater, unfit for human use. Of the 3% that is fresh, two-thirds is locked up in glaciers or ice and snow around the poles. Only 1% of all the world’s water is available for human consumption.

Water is literally vital: without it, life could not exist. But even 1% of the earth's available water should be enough for all. In a natural water cycle, rainwater falls from the clouds on to the land, nourishes life, returns through rivers to the salty sea and evaporates as fresh water back into the clouds. Except for a few sources, such as fossilised groundwater, it is not at all like oil or coal: water is infinitely renewable.

Two-thirds of our people and 80% of the poor live in rural areas, most dependent on agriculture and related professions. Every farmer would benefit from better management of water resources. Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water and rain is the primary source of water for all farmers. The importance of rains for the farmer, the economy and society gets highlighted when the monsoon fails, but when formulating water resource policies, plans and strategy, this crucial fact is forgotten.
Rainwater will have to be brought to the centre of our water policies and programmes. Since the use of rainwater in agriculture differs in different agro-climatic situations, protection of existing local systems of water harvesting and creation of more such systems will have to be the focus of the water sector agenda, policies, programmes and financial allocation. The local communities must have the right to decide about development, management and use of such systems. Local water systems would also help generate more employment for the rural population, a crying need today.
Our water resources development is marked by an over-emphasis on mega projects. There are, of course, many fallouts of this approach. One that is less discussed is that inter-state water disputes can be traced to big projects and long distance water transfers. By making planning and decision-making processes bottom up, this conflict of inter-state water disputes can be tempered.
The cropping patterns adopted should suit the hydro-climatic conditions in the region. This should be an important feature of agricultural planning. Equally, the issue of a virtual export of water from the country, and from specific areas, should be made integral to the policy and programmes. India, according to one estimate, exported 161 billion cubic mts of water each year in the late 1990s. Can we afford to do so and simultaneously continue to cry for more water?
A former finance minister, while presenting his budget did recognise the importance of local water systems when he said, ‘Through the ages, Indian agriculture has been sustained by natural and man-made water bodies such as lakes, tanks, ponds and similar structures. It has been estimated that there are more than a million such structures and about 500,000 are used for irrigation. Many of them have fallen into disuse. Many of them have accumulated silt. Many require urgent repairs. I therefore propose to launch a massive scheme to repair, renovate and restore all the water bodies that are directly linked to agriculture.’
More significantly, in the same budget, the finance minister announced an allocation of Rs 28 billion for schemes under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Project (AIBP), almost all of it for large projects. That hardly shows a clear priority in favour of decentralised systems.
Though India has the biggest irrigation infrastructure in the world, it is in bad shape and the government is unable to allocate adequate resources even for its upkeep and maintenance. That infrastructure is delivering sub-optimum benefits. According to the mid-term review of the 9th five year plan, ‘With a 10% increase in the present level of water use efficiency, it is estimated that an additional 14 million hectares can be brought under irrigation from existing irrigation capacities. This would require a very mode-rate investment.’ It needs to be noted that even after a 10% increase, efficiency would remain far from optimal.
At the rate irrigation capacities were enhanced in the ninth plan period, to add 14 m ha additional irrigation would take 21.5 years. And yet, little is being done to achieve that additional irrigation efficiency. The government needs to ensure that the limited available resources are used for repair, maintenance and management of existing infrastructure to get optimum benefits. The World Bank, in its draft Country Assistance Strategy for 2005-8 has said, ‘The highest returns of water resource management lie in rehabilitation and upgrading of existing infrastructure.’
Ever since the sixth five year plan, every five year plan talks of putting a stop to additional projects and focusing on completion of ongoing ones. The situation today is worse than in 1980 when the sixth plan started. This strategy of trying to finish the incomplete schemes is self-defeating when we cannot freeze new schemes and are unable to allocate resources even to maintain the existing infrastructure. Currently there are at least 411 incomplete major and medium irrigation schemes that were started over 30 years ago. The AIBP was initiated in 1996-7 with a view to complete the ‘last mile’ projects. However, eight years and expenditure of tens of thousands of crores later, only 28 of the 411 schemes that we started with have been completed, that too only under the threat of stopping funds. Nevertheless, hundreds of crores each year is being diverted from AIBP to fund projects like the Sardar Sarovar, which will not be completed for several decades according to the government’s own admission. This must stop. A similar situation exists with respect to command area development projects started in the early seventies.
We must undertake a credible review of incomplete projects with the aim of scrapping those projects where little physical infrastructure is in place. Where substantial physical infrastructure has been created, the review should examine if the projects can be redesigned to reduce investment requirements and achieve faster and optimal benefits. Such a review should also look at the option of reducing dam height, among others.
Even among existing projects, there is a need to assess the performance of select schemes to compute actual costs, benefits and impacts compared to the estimates made at the planning stage. The objective would be to draw lessons for future projects and to see what needs to be done to achieve optimal benefits. It may well turn out that some of the projects are doing more harm than good and it would be better to decommission them. The review exercise should look into the siltation of reservoirs and measures to arrest it as also assess the extent and nature of water-logged and salinised areas and the measures required to solve the problem.
Groundwater is in many respects a unique resource, available to most of the areas and people. In fact, the bulk of drinking water needs of the rural population in India are satisfied by groundwater. Over half the irrigated areas and two thirds of production from irrigated areas comes from land irrigated by groundwater. And yet, that resource is slipping out of the hands of the people. The groundwater levels are falling almost everywhere. A very large portion of the remaining groundwater resource is getting polluted. We have little idea about the extent of groundwater pollution and its impact on the health of people who depend on groundwater for their daily needs assuming it to be pure. This is a silent tragedy waiting to strike.
Under the circumstances what is required is to first make a basin-wise and district-wise assessment of groundwater potential, both state of use and quality. The Central Ground Water Board assessments are neither available to the local communities and decision-makers in good time, nor do they have any place in planning, decision-making or regulation. Second, the assessment should also include a survey of groundwater recharge potential and measures needed to achieve it. A main reason for the groundwater situation is the neglect and destruction of local water systems. Simultaneously, we need to legislate that anyone with a groundwater extraction system should be responsible for recharge of groundwater to the extent of its use. Finally, we need to ensure effective regulation of groundwater use. Communities should be placed at the centre of any regulatory mechanism.
Over the past 50 years, expansion of groundwater irrigation has played a lead role in food security. Yields in areas irrigated by groundwater are often substantially higher than yields in areas irrigated from surface sources. In India, for example, research indicates that yields in groundwater irrigated areas are higher by one third to one half than in areas irrigated from surface sources and as much as 70-80% of India’s agricultural output may be groundwater dependent.
Higher yields from groundwater irrigated areas are due, in large part, to its ease of control and reliability. Early studies indicated that water control alone can reduce the gap between potential and actual yields by about 20%. This translates into substantial benefits. Reliability is even more important. Groundwater is a key buffer against drought and normal variations in rainfall. Overall, increased yields from groundwater irrigated areas have translated into substantially higher yields and are thus a major factor in food production at the regional and national levels.
Furthermore, some of the most important food security benefits related to groundwater lie at the level of individual farmers. The vulnerability to natural hazards of different groups in society, including those that threaten food security, can be explained by their access to networks of key productive and social resources. For rural populations, groundwater is among the most important of these resources.
Households with access to key resources are able to build support systems that reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards. Groundwater irrigation reduces the risk that investment in labour, seed, fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs will be lost due to drought or the variability of precipitation in normal years while higher yields enable households to generate surpluses. As a result, households with access to groundwater tend to have higher levels of savings and are able to make investments in other productive resources or activities.
Groundwater is a highly important source of domestic water supply. In India, roughly 80% of rural water supply for domestic uses is met from groundwater. The importance of potable drinking water is clear. As in the case of other uses, however, this is only a portion of the value of groundwater as a source of domestic supply. Wells in the villages and the towns free people, particularly women, from long daily walks to fetch water from springs or rivers for livestock and domestic uses. This frees time and labour for other activities. Furthermore, since water no longer has to be carried over long distances, more is often used. This can have major health benefits. In addition, because of the filtering nature of the soil and frequent long residence time underground, groundwater is commonly much cleaner than surface sources.
Groundwater is a key resource for poverty alleviation and economic development. Evidence indicates that improved water sources generate many positive externalities in the overall household micro-economy. In areas dependent on irrigated agriculture, the reliability of groundwater sources and the high crop yields generally achieved as a result often enable farmers with small landholdings to increase income. In India small and marginal farmers (those having less than 2 hectares) own 29% of the agricultural area. Their share in net area irrigated by wells is, however, 38.1 % and they account for 35.3 % of the tube wells fitted with electric pump sets.
Thus, in relation to operational area, small and marginal farmers tend to have proportionally more irrigated land than larger farmers. With productivity on irrigated lands being much higher than that on non-irrigated tracts, better access to irrigation for small and marginal farmers can significantly reduce poverty.
The positive economic impact of groundwater development extends beyond well owners. Access to groundwater stabilises the demand for associated inputs, and leads to the spread of support services for pumps and wells, creating a base for small scale rural industries. Furthermore, the spread of groundwater irrigation can increase demand for labour. In India, for example, labour accounts for approximately 44 % of the cost of installing a well and the additional indirect employment created on every hectare of irrigated land through increased agricultural activity is approximately 45 days per hectare. Therefore, the expansion of groundwater irrigation has significant ripple effects, creating employment throughout rural economies.
The equity impacts of groundwater development for irrigation are, however, not all positive. Modern tube well and drilling technology tends to be capital intensive. As a result, early exploiters of groundwater have typically been large farmers who produce surpluses for the market Small holders growing subsistence crops often depend on supplementary groundwater irrigation using a variety of man and animal-driven water lifting devices from shallow, open wells. The expansion of energised pumping technologies tends to draw water levels down, driving shallow wells and muscle-driven devices out of business. This was, for instance, the case throughout the Gangetic basin and other parts of India during the 1960s.
Yet two big obstacles stand in the way of delivery of water to people. The first is that it is often in the wrong location. Some places, such as Canada, Austria and Ireland, have more water than they can possibly use; others, such as Australia, northern China and the Middle East, have too little. In many parts of the world, such as India and Bangladesh, rainfall is highly seasonal: almost all the year's supply may arrive within a few months. There are variations even at local levels, as a “water poverty index” shows for two villages 20 miles apart in Tanzania. Water is also heavy, which makes it costly to transport over long distances.
The second, bigger difficulty with water is, however, neither physical nor geographical: man's extravagantly wasteful misuse of it. This stems largely from a wilful refusal to treat water as an economic good, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Water, the stuff of life, ought to be the most precious of all gifts. Yet throughout history, and especially over the past century, it has been ill-governed and, above all, colossally underpriced. Indeed it is often given away completely free. Not only does this ignore the huge costs of collecting, cleaning, storing and distributing it, to say nothing of treating waste-water and sewage. It also leads to overuse of water for the wrong things, especially for highly water-intensive crops. The best way to deal with water is to price it more sensibly—to reflect, so far as possible, the costs of providing it (including environmental costs), as well as its marginal utility.
In the past few years water has become the stuff of international politics. World water forum in Kyoto, Japan, was only one of a plethora of conferences devoted to it. The United Nations declared 2003 to be the international year of fresh water, and produced two heavy tomes in support. The Johannesburg earth summit in August 2002 agreed to reduce the number of people without safe access to clean water and basic sanitation by half by 2015. Today, over a billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation. G8 summit in Evian (a French spa town), appropriately, had water on its agenda, though in the event it did little more than reaffirm the Johannesburg goals.
Pricing ought to be a big part of such discussions, yet many green lobbyists hate talking about it. They believe that it is immoral to charge for water because the stuff is essential and God-given; that private-sector involvement in water is an ethical disgrace; and that interference with the flow of rivers, such as dam-building, is environmentally disastrous. They claim that water consumption inexorably grows with income and population, and that this will lead to increasing shortages and even to wars. The world is fast running out of water, they say, and extravagant domestic consumption is to blame.
To take this last claim first, the world is not running out of water, partly because the natural cycle perpetually renews it but also because the growth in water consumption no longer seems to be correlated with growth in GDP and population (see chart 1 for what is happening in the United States, the world's most profligate user of water). According to Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, in the 1930s it took 200 tonnes of water to make a tonne of steel in America; now it takes only 20 tonnes of water, and the best Korean methods use only 3-4 tonnes. Toilets, which account for the biggest domestic use of water, show a similar gain: from six gallons of water per flush in 1980 to only 1.6 gallons in the latest models.

Domestic consumers are hardly ever to blame for water shortages. As much as 50% of the water in piped systems is lost through leakage. More important, wherever in the world water is scarcest, which is mostly in developing countries, irrigation for agriculture gobbles up at least 75% and sometimes as much as 90% of the available water? In richer countries, industry and energy use a surprisingly large amount. Domestic users everywhere account for a relatively small share. Any shortages should thus be blamed on farmers and manufacturers, not on swimming-pool owners.

As for the idea that future wars will be about water not oil, it is true that water has played a critical role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it has sometimes been a proximate cause of fighting elsewhere. But the management of water, especially of rivers, cries out for co-operation, and it has more often been linked to peace than to war. The Indus river partnership functioned through successive clashes between India and Pakistan; the Mekong has been a co-operative venture even though the region through which it flows has been racked by war; and the ten squabbling countries of the Nile basin have signed up to a compact brokered by the World Bank.

Water delivery and treatment are highly capital-intensive businesses. As Gérard Mestrallet of Suez, the world's biggest water company, likes to say, “God provided the water, but not the pipes.” Wherever that capital investment comes from, somebody has to pay for it: if not users, then taxpayers or aid donors. For the people who now have no access to clean water, what matters is whether water comes out of the tap, not who delivers it.

Dams, too, are the subject of a noisy debate. Certainly many have been built with little regard for cost or for the environment. But to revert to the purely natural state that some greens advocate is to ignore the dams and water diversions that have been an integral part of civilisation ever since it began along the lower Tigris and Euphrates (in today's Iraq). The Romans built aqueducts everywhere.

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