A social force called water

The state is struggling to meet the rising water demand. It is time to learn from the days when people arranged their own water. In cities and in villages. A special report by the CENTRE FOR SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

Published: Thursday 15 October 1998

A social force called water

JUST suppose for a moment, howsoever impossible it may sound: the state just disappears one day. There is nobody to supply you with piped water. What will you do?

Even the idea sounds preposterous at the end of the 20th century. But less than 150 years ago it was the norm. No state in the world supplied water to anybody. And it remains the norm to date in areas such as Nagaland or remote Himalayan villages, where the modern state has failed to reach. Water is not something that anybody can live without. Therefore, people will do everything to ensure their own water supply. And, as technology was once limited, people then depended less on large river systems and underground water sources, They depended mainly on the rain that fell in their towns and villages or on the floodwaters of nearby streams. And people did everything possible to collect this water through household or community efforts.

The last 150 years have seen two major discontinuities occur in water management worldwide. One, the role of the state has grown by leaps and bounds. Two, the state has resorted to increasing exploitation of river water and ground water. The combined result of these two developments, as part of the modern paradigm, has been to destroy the traditional water harvesting systems that were developed using rain and floodwaters through household and community efforts.

Today, it is an open question whether the older paradigm was better than the modern paradigm of water management. A century of water management by the state has shown us the ills that it is capable of.

One, the state has consistently subsidised water supply, giving the argument that there are many poor people whose water needs must be met as water is a key human need. This subsidy has not meant that the poor have got water but the rich have definitely got into a habit of squandering and polluting water.

Two, the enormous water demand that has been created as a result has led to over-exploitation of rivers and groundwater reserves.

Three, not only is there a shortage of water but also a dearth of money to deal with this shortage. The state no longer has the financial resources to invest in mega-projects that can provide the infrastructure to meet the emerging water demand. Subsidies mean such a regular drain on state financial resources that the state neither has enough money to invest in new projects on the scale required nor on the proper maintenance of the existing investments. The result is mayhem both in terms of the quantity and the quality of water supplied by the state. And more and more agencies are saying that the private sector - read private corporations - should be brought into the water business. But the private sector is not just corporations, it also includes individuals, households and urban and rural communities.

So what would happen if you and 1 were to manage our own water needs?

One, we would have to make all the investments necessary to meet our water needs. In other words, we would meet the full economic costs of our water supply system. Water supply would no longer be a drain on the state's financial resources. The rich would pay money to get their water supply because money is what they have. The poor would contribute their labour because labour is what they can offer.

Two, as water supply would no longer be unlimited, every body would be relatively more careful -with the use of water. Thus, water conservation would become a popular habit.

Three, if we allowed our local water resources to become polluted, we ourselves would die of some disease or the other, sooner or later. Therefore, people would slowly learn to oppose pollution and not leave this task to some bureaucracy.

All this sounds like a pipedream. But I am sure with proper education and social mobilisation, this can happen, provided we carefully redefine the role of the state. There is no dearth of experts who talk about the need to reduce state subsidies on water projects, increase water-use efficiency and water conservation practices, and reduce water pollution. To me, all this is possible, but the 21st century challenge lies in developing a new paradigm in which water becomes everybody's business. A paradigm in which the household and the community will enter into a new relationship with the state in water management.

And as this report shows, it is slowly happening in various parts of the world, including India.

This time there will be no divide. The new paradigm will apply not just to poor but also to the rich; not just to rural areas but also to urban areas; and, not just to developing countries but also to industrialised countries. And, in India, we will have so many traditions to learn from.

Indians at the end of the 20th century have a stark choice to make: A land full of water, clean and plenty, or a land thirsty for clean water but only with polluted water in plenty. It is going to be the biggest challenge that the Indian people and their politicians would have ever faced.

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