THE world's water resources are today coming under increasing stress as a result of population growth, especially in the developing world. This is due to growing urbanisation, industrialisation and agricultural activity based on overdoses of chemicals and large scale irrigation. Each of these processes is killing water resources in two ways: first, through growing overuse and, second, through pollution.
Just as there is growing concern about the adverse impact of humans on the atmosphere, there is growing concern about the adverse impact of humans on the hydrosphere. International agencies like the World Bank are also beginning to have doubts that they are getting their water investment wrong. Environmentalists are repeatedly telling them that water management requires a holistic picture. Nature itself requires a lot of water. But while social activists are fighting against the ill-effects of big dams, there is no equivalent movement to prevent the misuse of groundwater, even though it is today being ruthlessly exploited. So just what is the future going to be like?
In order to get a good idea of what people across the world are thinking about this subject, World Bank vice-president, Ismael Serageldin, organised a one-day dialogue on Water in the 21st Century.
I guess I got invited to this august meeting of the world's top 'water intellectuals' - there were very few water experts and engineers - because of the last State of India's Environment Report which focused on the country's 5,000-year-old traditions in rainwater harvesting. The meeting began with an interesting comment from leading US environmental commentator, Jessica Mathews, that we should try to understand if there is any likelihood of major discontinuities of any kind in the future which will affect humanity and the world's water resources. I felt that Mathews' warning was extremely valid but instead of looking into the future, having done research on the past, I pointed out that the world's water resources are already suffering heavily from two discontinuities that slowly began to grip them since the 19th century. Ismael Serageldin had already reminded the gathering that freshwater resources are only 2.5 per cent of the total water available in the world but unfortunately most of this 2.5 per cent is available only in the form of rain and floods. Only very little is available, in comparison, in streams and groundwater. I, therefore, pointed out that until the start of the 20th century most of water use in a highly developed country like India - we must remember that until the British came, it was one of the world's richest, most urbanised and literate nations - was of rainwater and floodwater. Indians knew that almost all the water they got in a year - in a country that is relatively rich in rainfall - was in just 100 hours. The remaining 8,660 hours in a year, the gods gave them nothing. So they built a civilisation on these drops of nectar from heaven. Bengal and the Thanjavur delta were one of the most agriculturally prosperous regions in the country and they depended almost entirely on the capture of floodwater for irrigation.
The second biggest discontinuity of this century came with the growing role of the state. Serageldin had warned the gathering that the next decade will require an investment in the water sector of the order of US $600 billion, of which international agencies will be able to provide only 10 per cent. But most governments in the developing world do not have resources of this order. Well, one argument is that the private sector - meaning the corporate sector - must be enrolled to make investments.
But if we go back to the past of a country like India, we find that the state made almost no investment in this area. Indian kings rarely developed a tank or a canal for the people. They simply encouraged them freedom from agriculture taxes, and in order to let the people know about the agreement they had made with noble or a local rich man, they would inscribe the agreement on temple walls. The private sector was therefore already operating though not in the form corporations but in the form of individuals and local communities. In this way, not only were a lot of resources mobilised but the people also became careful in their use of water.
More than that, the intervention of the state has led to mega-water projects, encouraged water profligacy, and unable to recover the full costs, it has locked the nation into a regular raid on the national treasuries. Just get the state out and water profligacy will stop, mega-projects will become millions of small projects, full economic costs will be recovered, and people will start worrying about their neighbouring sources and watersheds. The role state should be totally restricted to helping the poor to help themselves.
The challenge before India is that it must not merely prepare itself to deal with the discontinuities of the future but also learn how to get out of the staggering burden and the inertia generated by discontinuities of the past. The effects of these discontinuities can take centuries to get a grip on humanity and then centuries for humanity to get out of that grip. These are not issues for five-year plans. These are civilisational issues.