For frugality and sensible use

  • 14/08/2004

A recent letter from a reader has disturbed me enormously. B P Radhakrishna, president of the Geological Society of India, in response to a story in Down To Earth about how drought was affecting the mango harvest in Andhra Pradesh, wrote that the problem was not the current failure of rainfall. The problem, he said, was that we had sucked the the earth so dry, that the deep-rooted mango trees, known to survive by harnessing groundwater at considerable depth, could not find moisture anymore. In other words, we are not talking about drought as a failure of current rainfall or even a variation in the normal rainfall, but drought as a progressive and cancerous phenomenon, in which we have literally crippled our capacities to withstand any shock.

It is important to understand the implications of this missive, as the country stands at the precipice of another devastating monsoon failure and as the political heat inflames a conflict to share the water of the Ravi and Beas rivers or abates, temporarily - till the next dry season - over the dispute to share the waters of river Cauvery. Because until we understand the nature of the crisis, how can we seek answers that work?

Currently, the government's response is reactive and palliative. It fire-fights the crisis. Desperately. If it manages to activate its massive relief bureaucracy efficiently it can ensure that even a bad drought does not become a famine. It can transport food from Food Corporation of India godowns (not so overflowing anymore), fodder from irrigated areas and water from wherever, in roads and trains, to people across the country. It can buttress this movement by equally massive employment generation schemes, to break stones or build roads (they will wash away by next season). This employment is critical. It does provide that little relief to buy food stock to last the season. This all has to be done because it will make the difference between life and death.

In the political minefield of river disputes, the government does even less. It just watches, waits for God to bring rain and temporary relief or scurries about for a new appeasement package. All in all, it makes a farce of the issue staring it in the face: how the country is to live and share its now scarce water resources.

I think the following policies need to underpin our development strategies. First, the science that assesses the state of a resource needs to drastically improve and must be available to all. Currently, these assessments are a joke. In the Punjab-Haryana imbroglio over the Satluj-Yamuna link canal, the estimation of water alloted was revised upward every time a crisis broke. Now Punjab, which has raised all hell by rescinding its agreements to share water, is alleging that there is only 14.37 million acre feet (MAF), not 18.28 MAF, of water to be distributed between the three states.

But nobody knows just how much water there is in the Ravi and the Beas. So nobody can work out a formulae for apportionment. Is it because these are international rivers and all data on them is a state secret? Or is it simply the case that our scientific institutions are so progressively disabled that we cannot predict the monsoons accurately, we cannot assess groundwater resources with any degree of certainty and we cannot measure the water in our rivers to build reliable policies. But if we accept the political economy of stress, this situation of national ignorance will have to be reversed.

Secondly, we must learn to practice conserving water. It is clear the use of water has two major management systems. One, as consumptive use - the used water is consumed and 'virtually' transferred via a product - say a crop in agriculture - to us in our food. And two as process use, where water is mostly discharged after use and rejoins the water cycle, as when cities discharge 80 per cent of the water consumed as sewage.

Therefore, policies will have to be built to optimise our use in both these broad sectors. A Vaidyanathan, one of India's most eminent irrigation economists, has recently published along with his colleague K Sivasubramaniyan what I think is perhaps the first estimation that fathoms the value of the foodcrop, through the value of the raindrop - the yield per hectare per unit of water consumed. Their study reveals interesting issues for policy. It points out that of the 660 billion cubic metres of total consumptive use of water by crops, roughly 55 per cent is accounted for by irrigated crops. Rice alone accounts for a little over 20 per cent of all water consumed by all crops, but wheat alone uses 30 per cent of the irrigated water. Interestingly, while yields per unit of irrigated area are higher than in unirrigated areas, the yield per unit of consumptive use of water is not always higher - in fact, it is normally 10 to 30 per cent lower.

This should begin to show us directions: promoting water-efficient crops, researching to find ways of making water-guzzling crops guzzle lesser and do all we can to value each drop.

To deal with the challenge of process users, all water discharged from industrial and urban areas must be treated so that it can be reused, recycled and returned to the hydrological system. It will cost us money. But then, think of the message the finance minister, P Chidambaram, would have given if he had announced not a desalination plant to turn the seawater to drink, but a water treatment plant to turn sewage into drink. It would have taken us one critical step ahead in fighting the arrogant mindset of plenty and abuse. We would be that much closer to the mindset of frugality and sensible use.

- Sunita Narain

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