Pricing the precious

A pricing mechanism and harvesting techniques will solve water crisis

By Deep Narayan Pandey
Published: Saturday 15 December 2001

-- (Credit: Kumar)It is unfathomable why a civilisation that has worshipped water as part of its tradition should suffer from its scarcity. Mainly, because people today don't know the cost of the water used, and they seldom try to conserve or collect water where it falls. The fact that 1.5 million tanks dot Rajasthan's 660,000 villages and the state's numerous forts and palaces still boast of rainwater harvesting facilities is testimony to our rich past of water management techniques.

Can history simply not be repeated to overcome geographical limitations? Yes it can. Provided a carrot-and-stick policy is in place to reward efficient use of available water and penalise profligacy. Alongside, a well-regulated pricing mechanism and encouragement of local conservation methods, including rainwater harvesting, must be initiated if future water wars are to be avoided.

According to an analysis published in Science, the foremost reason for the mounting water scarcity is that water is undervalued throughout the world. The price of irrigation water, for instance, covers only a small fraction of capital investment and management costs. The costs for the treatment and management of watersheds are never reflected in these prices. Similarly, in the case of pollution of freshwater sources, regulations are often ineffective and the culprits seldom held responsible. Majority of the city dwellers pay scant attention to conserving water and some of them have now dug private tube-wells without paying the actual cost of mining the water.

A simple way to promote efficient use of water is to implement tax on the profligate behaviour. Prudence in the available water-use can be promoted by recovering the real cost of supply and distribution . There may be a widespread resistance initially, but it will make the system efficient and the people responsible -- use less and pay less. A distribution system can be designed to ensure equity and justice as well as the reliability of supply. This is already happening in Andhra Pradesh where farmers and city dwellers are ready to pay more for an assured water supply.

Our government is spending millions of rupees on forest and watershed management. These are the areas that yield water in the form of perennial streams or groundwater recharge. A vegetated watershed is a resource forever and, therefore, the price of water should include the cost of managing them. However, such market mechanisms for sustainable water management, though essential, are insufficient. We also need to look at the collective wisdom of our ancestors and traditional societies. Over thousands of years societies have developed a diversity of local water harvesting and management systems that continue to survive in South Asia, Africa and other parts of the world. These systems often work in unison with agroforestry and ethnoforestry. Our policy, practice, education and advocacy should promote rainwater harvesting. Non-governmental organisations (ngo) like Centre for Science and Environment (cse) and activists like Rajinder Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh - a Rajasthan -based ngo, have done seminal service to promote rainwater harvesting.

Revival of local rainwater harvesting practices would help solve the water crisis. Even a hectare of land in Barmer, Jaisalmer and Bikaner in Rajasthan, where the rainfall is less than 100 millimetres per year, could theoretically yield one million litres of water from rainwater harvest. What is simply needed here is ponds, earthen embankments in rural landscape, and rooftops. About half-a-million litres of water a year can be harvested from over one hectare of land. Forest department in Rajasthan has done a great service by constructing over 4,000 check dams in Hadoti and Mewar region. Similarly Satna district in Madhya Pradesh has about 5,000 village tanks and an equal number of associated mango gardens.

In the cities, rainwater could be harvested from rooftops for residential use and the surplus water could be channelled through bore wells to replenish the groundwater. If tanks and roofs are to be used for harvesting, we need technology and policy innovations that must include institutional changes, so that along with private harvest, the common-pool resources are also effectively managed through public action. In order to allow market mechanisms, however, subsidies must go. Only then it will make economic sense to use the priced water efficiently. Also people will see an incentive in collecting the gift of nature and treating it more reverentially than ever before.

Deep Narayan Pandey is in Indian Forest Service and is at present an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal

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