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Are we on the brink of water wars?

By Aditi Phadnis
July 28, 2017 11:32 IST
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'Nature does not send us a bill, so we ignore them in decision making until we hit a moment of crisis, such as the current shortage of water.'

Water scarcity

IMAGE: A child victim of Maharashtra's drought.
In any given year, India sees a pattern of too little rain in some places and too much rain in others.
Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/

Bhaskar Vira teaches at the department of geography and is fellow of Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge.

Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, Professor Vira highlights the need to incorporate ecological wisdom into our everyday decision making, in this interview with Aditi Phadnis.

Recently, four Tibetan monks held prayers alongside the Naini Lake where mounds of dead fish were piled up because the water in the lake is drying up. But isn't the matter beyond prayer?
All over India, hills are facing an acute shortage of water. What is the solution?

I'm always a little wary of suggesting simple solutions to what are usually complex problems.

But we need to start with a change in our attitudes to what nature provides us.

We have tended to take these 'gifts' for granted... clean air, water, forests, and the species that inhabit these spaces, all of which contribute to improving our lives.

Nature does not send us a bill for these services, so we ignore them in decision making, until we hit a moment of crisis, such as the current shortage of water.

We need to incorporate ecological wisdom into our everyday decision making.

We need to understand how water flows, how our decisions impact on these flows, and to learn to treat nature with the respect it deserves.

We need to reinvest in nature rather than contributing to its destruction.

Pakistan flood

IMAGE: 'Instead of perceiving it as a zone of conflict, it is better to consider shared waters of the sub-continent as drivers of peace and cooperation.'
'Water does not respect political boundaries. When there is too much water, as in the Kashmir floods a few years ago, both sides of the border get inundated.'
Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

India is not a dry country, but almost all of the rain falls during the monsoon.
How can we safely store and transport water so that it's available 12 months a year, and distributed evenly throughout the country?
How can we prevent encroachment in hill towns and sensitise local populations about it?

The problem in India is both to do with the timing of the rains, and where the rain falls -- there is both temporal and spatial unevenness.

So, in any given year, we will get most of the rainfall in the three-four months of the monsoon; and, in any given year, we will also see a pattern of scarcity (too little rain in some places) and plenty (too much rain in others).

We can't change this pattern -- but we can develop ways to cope with it.

One key issue is storage of water, both above ground (in ponds, lakes, tanks, and rivers) and below ground (in terms of aquifer and groundwater recharge).

For example, in Nainital, allowing Sukhatal to serve as a buffer for the main lake, storing water in the monsoon, and then slowly releasing it in subsequent months is a very sensible way to manage the problem of too much monsoon rain.

Up and down the country, we have traditional tanks and storage systems that are being built and encroached upon, with developers unaware and unconcerned about the implications for the associated disruption to hydrological systems.

The encroachment issue is related.

Many of these water storage systems are temporary or seasonal, critical for a few months, but then apparently falling into disuse for the rest of the year.

This temporary availability of space encourages encroachment and the occupation of land. These pressures can, and must, be resisted.

We need to carefully demarcate these 'critical water zones', and ensure that they are protected.

With modern technology, and a vigilant civil society, monitoring compliance should not be too difficult.

It is important for local populations to realise that they can address these problems, and to pressure the authorities to ensure compliance with land use and zoning regulations.

There's been a lot of talk about river interlinking. Is that the answer?
In any case, apart from two rivers interlinked in Andhra Pradesh there has been precious little movement on this...

The river-linking project is high risk, and unproven for Indian conditions -- both in ecological and administrative terms.

Ecologically, there are risks that such a project might disrupt existing bio-geophysical systems, and might not be resilient in the medium term due to changing patterns of precipitation due to climate change.

I am also inherently cautious about such large-scale engineering projects, which typically over-run and are often linked to high levels of corruption in execution and delivery.

There are other, more local and small-scale options, and these should be examined.

Investing in source protection and regeneration at a local level might be a more sustainable long-term alternative.

This is beginning to happen, in parts of peninsular India, and the stunning work being done on springs and their regeneration in Sikkim.

Dirty Ganga

IMAGE: Untreated sewage flows from an open drain into the Ganga in Kanpur.
Indian rivers continue to be filthy, although leaders smugly say purity of rivers is a creed with India and Hinduism.
Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

You study conservation. India talks a lot about it, but as a field of research and study, it has no following in India.
Indian rivers continue to be filthy, although leaders smugly say purity of rivers is a creed with India and Hinduism...

The modern lifestyle has definitely resulted in people losing touch with the natural world.

Water comes from a tap now, and most people have no idea about what the source of their water is, and how threatened these critical water sources might be.

They may be unable to connect the loss of nature with the slow trickle of water in their municipal supplies, and there is little appreciation of the interconnectedness of our lives with the natural world.

Religious practice and cultural traditions in India have a lot to contribute, as they tend to reflect a respect for nature in some of their core principles.

Unfortunately, many who practise or preach about religion lack an appreciation of this ancient wisdom, or indeed ecological wisdom of any kind, as far as our rivers and lakes are concerned.

I am very interested in the implications of the recent court rulings that have given rivers the legal standing, as quasi-persons.

What is significant about this is not just that rivers themselves have rights, but that these rights are associated with duties on the part of the government.

If a river is polluted, or is dirty, its rights are being violated, and the new legal entitlement can be enforced in a court of law, holding the government to account.

This could have major implications up and down the country.

There has been dire warning about water wars. Do you believe things will reach that point in the South Asian subcontinent?

All scarce resources can be a potential flashpoint in times of political contestation.

Water cannot be immune to this risk, although I suspect it is unlikely to be an immediate danger, at least in an international sense.

Our relations with our neighbours are far too complex to allow the water question to emerge as the key determinant of conflict.

However, as we have seen in the Cauvery dispute, at more local levels, water wars already begun.

Instead of perceiving these as potential zones of conflict, it is far better to consider the shared waters of the sub-continent as drivers of peace and cooperation.

Water flows between places and does not respect political boundaries.

When there is too much water, as in the Kashmir floods a few years ago, it does not matter which side of the border gets inundated (and, it is often likely to be both sides).

Information sharing, data platforms, and joint emergency response services could be a very important bridge between communities at these critical moments.

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Aditi Phadnis
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