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Building 'empires of water'

Aug 19, 2008

In an exclusive online interview to OneWorld South Asia, co-editor of a newly launched book: Water First, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt discusses some of the issues of water in South Asia. She feels that the hegemonic nature of current water management practices has proved to be disastrous.

A new book: Water First – Issues and Challenges for Nations and Communities in South Asia jointly edited by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Robert J. Wasson and published by Sage Publications is a collection of essays on several aspects of water resources in South Asia by eminent experts. The book is divided into three sections that has a total of 19 essays, covering regional politics of water, challenges and approaches, and community roles and initiatives.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: The title of your book Water First establishes the importance of this vital resource. The book has essays by eminent experts on almost every conceivable aspect of the impending water crisis in the South Asian region. Tell us how this book was shaped?

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt: First of all, I grew up in lower Damodar valley, and did my studies on the Damodar’s basin area as a Geographer. But more than that, I was involved in a local level struggles over water for several years since the late 1990s. These small groups are based in lower part of the Damodar Valley Corporation’s (DVC) ‘command area’ in West Bengal, where in this highly regulated catchment floods are often caused by the DVC during the monsoons and again when the farmers demand irrigation water during the winter, the DVC system fails to meet their expectations. Consequently there have been a series of initiatives, meetings and protests and efforts to connect with the broader social and environmental movements.

It is during that time I came into the contact of several people and groups who have influenced my understanding of water resources deeply. One such person is obviously Medha Patkar whose efforts to engage with these small groups, and to bring them under the umbrella of National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), was influential in re-shaping much of my learning. Two more groups that influenced my thinking to a great extent were Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and Institute of Social and Economic Transformation (also based in Kathmandu).

I learnt that there is much knowledge on water existing ‘out there’, but the hegemonic thinking on water is such that most often these voices do not get heard. This book brings together some finest scholarship on water issues in South Asia, and this contributes to our increasingly nuanced understanding of this vital fluid of life.

Another point this book makes is that it is possible for experts from all disciplines to meet at the same platform, and talk to each other as they have done in this book. This usually does not happen in India; social scientists from each discipline tend to remain within self-erected disciplinary walls. This book will be valuable if not for anything then this reason only.

OWSA: In the introduction, you talk of challenges that the nations and communities face in South Asia from current management practices and policies. Could you elaborate on some of the flaws of these practices and policies?

KLD: The current water management practices are usually centralised and owned by the State. Large water projects are easier to manage, but they take away the rights of the ordinary citizens from over their water resources. Over the years, we have ‘given’ this responsibility of managing the waters to the State and a look around the current situation would tell you that the consequences have been disastrous.

Many of us have come to take the availability of water for granted, using far too much water than necessary, whilst treating scarce resources without a second thought, and existing social and economic inequalities have been reproduced in the way water is distributed. As I have observed, often rising expectations have not been met. There has been no open dialogue between and amongst various groups and stakeholders.

Control over water has also become a symbol of social and political power in contemporary South Asia; national identities have become inextricably linked with ‘empires of water’ – resources owned by the states. This situation needs to (and can) change, as at the same time, more community-based solutions to the problems of access to water supplies have emerged.

OWSA: What is the problem with interlinking of rivers project? What implications will it have on river ecology and communities if it gets implemented in entirety?

KLD: I am not an expert on the river-linking project, and in my book, the expert on this subject (Dr Rohan D’Souza of Jawaharlal University) has written a long chapter. But in my view, river linking is a case of judicial activism gone to the wrong direction, and the project itself typifies all that is incorrect in our current water management thinking and practices.

It is a mega-engineering project, characterised by an enormity of size (and who does not know today that the larger the size of the project, the greater are its social and environmental impacts), and is most likely to have multiple issues associated with it that do not sit comfortably with either the idea of a just State or an active civil society that characterises India. Above all, it is an impractical – even laughable – engineering dream, reminiscent of the previous century, and completely out of water in light of many lessons we have learnt from the world over.

OWSA: Do you think within South Asia India can be described as a country that tries to build an ‘empire of water’, overlooking the legitimate interests of the smaller and less powerful countries?

KLD: I have touched on this issue lightly before, but the definite answer to this context would certainly be an unequivocal yes. Going beyond the absolute nature of physical control over the waters of our neighbours, what India does hold is a great position in terms of influencing the thinking and in setting the goals. So, what we do in terms of our water management practices, also gets replicated at times within our neighbouring countries. What India can do is to move away from statist discourses and explore the possibility of utilising this position to cultivate goodwill within a broader civil framework.

OWSA: What impact will privatisation of water resources in India have on people at large?

KLD: Whilst the statist ownership and control over water has not yielded benefits to a large number of poor who have little access to safe and adequate water and sanitation, the alternative cannot be the privatisation of water. We have come to believe that there is no alternative to these two extremes. Whilst water is not – it never was – a completely ‘free good’, its value is also not to be measured purely in economic terms.

OWSA: Given the challenges posed by global warming, especially in regard to fresh water availability, do you think countries in South Asia are doing enough?

KLD: Well, in India we have remained surprisingly calm over the impending reality of climate change and have put all the responsibility of action on the ‘developed’ countries. Yet, climate change is happening on our doorsteps: Maldives is only a small population size, but Bangladesh is amongst the countries that will be most severely affected.

The Himalayan rivers are going to be affected in such a way that their flow regimes would change and they will turn into rain-fed seasonal flows. This means all the infrastructure we have constructed – dams and canals – over the rivers will become redundant. This means more floods, severe water shortages for winter crops and many unforeseen problems that we have not dealt with seriously yet. If the current thinking pattern does not change, it will be difficult to accommodate any serious action to cope with climate change in our region.

OWSA: How important is access to water for gender equality and women’s empowerment? And how is this issue being addressed in South Asia and in India in particular?

KLD: This is an area that is so close to my heart. Access to safe and good quality water, access to sanitation – these are essential rights that we all have as citizens. Access to water has been proven to be crucial for gender equality and women’s empowerment from all over the world. Evidence has shown that women manage a significant amount of water all around the world, at home and in agricultural fields, but if you look at who makes decisions of how water ‘should’ be managed, you will see these groups more often than not comprise only men.

Water reflects social inequities; and gender inequities within our society are also reflected in current water management practices. This is an area that we have not adequately addressed in South Asia: one of the Millennium Development Goals is related to access to water and sanitation, but a visit to one of the poorer areas in town or a village would convince you that we are a long way away from meeting that goal.

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