Water visions

Past experiences in tackling river pollution have been disheartening. The recent call for recognising this water source as an ecosystem is a start in the right direction but one that needs to be backed by solid action

By Manoj Nadkarni
Published: Monday 31 December 2001

-- (Credit: Kumar)"Being aware of the rapid deterioration of the water quality of our rivers to the extent that in most cases it does not even meet standards for bathing, let alone those for human consumption...we call for certain actions."--This statement was a part of the draft recommendations of a recently held workshop on river conservation. It voices a serious concern and highlights a nightmarish reality. Unfortunately, in most cases, the remedy gets drowned in the rhetoric. This time, however, the anxiety expressed for the state of rivers, echoed in unison at the "National workshop on conservation of rivers and floodplains in India", appeared genuine. The workshop, organised jointly by School of Environment Sciences (ses), Jawaharlal Nehru University (jnu) and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (mef), even if it did nothing else, pointed out the magnitude of the problem.

It would be an understatement to say that almost all the rivers of India are heavily polluted today. We know this and government departments know this. But the pertinent question is what can be done to adequately address the problem? A M Gokhale, additional secretary, mef, said in his opening remarks that whatever conclusions are reached at the end of the workshop will be used as a vision statement, ultimately leading to the formulation of a bill to be used to protect rivers. Though India has extremely stringent pollution laws, so far, most plans and programmes to improve the situation have fallen flat with little or negative impact. The first plan to clean up an entire river in India was put into action in 1985. This was the Ganga Action Plan (gap), which in its supposed five-year first phase, was to reduce the pollution stress on the river. Sixteen years later, the river is actually more polluted then it was when the plan was initiated. (It is another matter that completion of first stage was delayed by a decade.) The plan was able to meet only 39 per cent of its target of sewage treatment, gap's primary goal. Despite investing vast sums of money, most of the treatment plants constructed, failed to function to the needed capacity. According to mef statistics, six of the 20 major river basins in India suffer from water scarcity and water has already become one of the most limiting resources in the country. Worse, the little there is, is polluted. Situations like these prompted the mef (river pollution comes under their remit) into organising such a workshop, in the hope of finding some solution.

The motives were right and the intentions honest. Almost 250 invitations were sent out, covering those in the government, academia and non-governmental organisations (ngos). One expected a big turnout at the opening session of this workshop, dealing as it was with a subject that is basic to agriculture, industry, biodiversity, health, urban and rural development, let alone a basic necessity like drinking water. But the presence of barely 25 people, is perhaps indicative of the importance given to cleaning up our rivers. It is interesting to speculate how many people would have turned up if the workshop was about using river water. What was heartening was that those present represented diverse areas related to river ecosystems and were vocal participants.

A much needed paradigm shift was emphasised: this was to recognise rivers as an ecological entity that did not necessarily fit into geological, political or economic boundaries and not merely as a channel carrying water and a conduit for wastes. This meant recognition of the fact that to preserve the health of a river it was essential that the integrity of all the different elements that make up the river was maintained. It also meant that all inland water bodies, earlier seen as distinct entities, were seen as a vital part of this riverine ecosystem. Partly this suggests that we need to take a serious look at our treatment of rivers and admit that the way we have been doing things is what is destroying them. We need to adopt a holistic approach to rivers, together with their floodplains, as ecosystems which are directly influenced by their drainage basins. On this, the workshop rang a positive bell.

Past attempts to clean up the rivers have always been on piecemeal basis. No conservation or cleaning up plans had ever considered the river and its catchment area as an ecosystem. Floodplains, basins and catchment areas were not the words one would hear or read often when the topic was river conservation. This crucial point was emphasised in the opening statement by Brij Gopal, professor at ses and convenor of the workshop. So far, most actions have been geared towards end-of-pipe engineering solutions.This is basically saying 'you pollute as much as you want and we'll clean it up for you.' And it is not as if the cleaning attempts have in any way been successful. There are numerous instances about how money has been wasted. Sewage treatment plants constructed in West Bengal under the gap are nowhere connected to the river Ganga. Pollution monitoring laboratories constructed at a cost of crores of rupees lie idle while all the testing is done from outside laboratories.

While problems of infrastructure and political expediency need to be addressed, it is the non-holistic treatment of the rivers that have led to the failure of most plans. Even at the workshop, though it was decided that river would be treated as an ecosystem, fissures were visible among the participants, some of whom wanted to prioritise their own concerns. This brings out in sharp focus another major problem, that of use of river water. Which use, for example, agriculture, sewage disposal or fisheries, has a higher priority? This is the question of abstraction, taking water out of the river. The supposed natural cleaning ability of a river depends on certain amount of flowing water being maintained. If too much is taken away, the river starts dying. This amount, called the minimum flow, needs to be determined for each river and each stretch of river. Only after that can other demands be quantified. This conclusion led to the general agreement in the workshop that there is no such thing as "surplus water" as far as a river is concerned. Aspects of conserving biodiversity, pollution control sedimentation and drinking water supply are all dependant on some amount of water flowing in the river channel. All abstraction comes at a cost. If decisions are to be taken on how much water can be taken from river, these decisions should be based on scientific understanding of minimum flow. mef additional director in the National River Conservation Directorate, R Dalwani, admitted that the ministry was not confident about how much minimum flow was required by a river. Because of this, minimum flow is given least priority at the time of deciding the priorities of distribution of water, she said. mef has arbitrarily decided 10 cubic metres per second as the minimum flow and she admitted that this was a questionable figure.The workshop identified this as a research and policy priority. A positive step that would result from this is that instead of a river having a prescribed minimum flow, the abstraction could be minimised and the maximum possible amount of flow always be maintained. So when the question of distribution arises, if necessary, water needs could be met from other sources rather than rivers, such as wastewater irrigation.

This would also mean that education and awareness would always have to be a part of any river conservation scheme so that stakeholders, beneficiaries and polluters know their obligations right from planning stage. This would especially hold true for municipal bodies who would have to raise funds to sustainably manage their riverine based resources and the development projects impacting on them. But the main question is will the workshop really result in some action? mef wanted a vision statement and a draft policy that they would use to plot their future course. Will this actually happen? As usual there is a problem. As the chair of the final session of the workshop suggested to one of the new entrant to these workshops -- who was caught up with the idealistic suggestions generated at the beginning of the workshop -- that recommendations had to be "made palatable" to the government departments dealing with rivers and their water. So the radical suggestions and forceful thinking representative of the start of the workshop were watered down. And of course, as usual, it was suggested that another workshop be held and some committees and institutions be set up. In which, no doubt, many of the participants will find warm and comfortable homes.

Manoj Nadkarni, heads the river pollution unit at Centre for Science and Environment (cse), New Delhi

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