Keeper of the nation's water kitty

MADHAV Chitale, former secretary in the ministry of water resources, is a recipient of The Stockholm Water Award, given by the Stockholm Water Foundation for outstanding work in the area of water management. Currently secretary general of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage in New Delhi, Chitale talked to Down To Earth on the problems of water management in India, which is among the more profligate users of the precious resource today, and the strategies required for a realignment of available water

By Sumanta Pal
Published: Wednesday 15 September 1993

The relationship between water resources and population growth keeps changing with the adoption of new technologies. Has this been the case with India?
Technology cannot increase the water content of the rivers, but it can improve harnessing and conservation techniques and so make more water available for individual consumption. The capacity to harness water depends entirely on the technological and economic strength of the society.

The adoption of modern technologies such as high dams for storage and deep tubewells, considerably increases the potential for utilising the water available in nature. A society armed with technologies like drip irrigation can utilise its water resources far more beneficially and thereby support a much larger population. In India, we are beginning to understand the critical role of technology in water management.

India's annual utilisable water resources are estimated to be 1,140 billion cum. Because of the rapid population growth, the per capita water resources are shrinking fast despite modern technology. Is this a no-return scenario?
The per capita availability of water in India has come down from 5,236 cum at the time of independence to about 2,227 cum today in aggregate terms. But water availability varies in different parts of the country, and during different times of the year. Thus, for our people, access to water is still a matter of locational specifications. However, efforts are on to harness as much water as possible and distribute it evenly throughout the country. In countries like ours, where availability of water is largely dependent on flood flows, technology remains the only solution to water crises. And, conservation will play an important role in this.

Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on irrigation. You admit to lapses in our water management, so how will you ensure the growing demand for irrigation water is met?
About 460 billion cum of water is used to irrigate the gross cropped area, which was 79.74 million ha at the end of the Seventh Plan. In comparison, in terms of net consumption, domestic water supply accounts for only 25 billion cum; industries, 15 billion cum, and energy 19 billion cum. But the requirement of water for these and other non-irrigation sectors is expected to be almost equal to the utilisable quantity of water available in India by the year 2025.

The important question is storage in reservoirs. In India, naturally available water dwindles very fast in the dry months, while during the monsoon, water is in excess. The solution lies in storing this excess water for use during the dry months. This necessitates a large number of storage structures on rivers and tributaries. There is not much scope for increasing the availability of water from the run of rivers as most potential sites for such purposes have been utilised. Hence, there will be greater emphasis on development of storage dams in the years to come. But large dams inevitably bring us to the question of rehabilitation and resettlement because such dams are considered anti-people. How do you respond to this criticism?
As I said earlier, we cannot ignore the benefits of large dams. However, the government has to take the displacement factor into consideration and adequate resettlement facilities have to be made. So far, India has only been able to develop storage capacity for about 162.5 billion cum of water through its 3,000 large dams, and an additional storage capacity of 3 billion cum through the 100,000 small projects. USA, which has an average river flow comparable to India, has the capacity to store more than 700 billion cum of water.

Because of the large catchments that feed them, water-dependant activities associated with large reservoirs have far greater stability than those dependant on supplies from small tanks. In Saurashtra, despite the presence of 76 medium schemes and 197 small dams, no water was available during the 1987 drought.

Coming back to your earlier point about large dams being considered anti-people, you must remember that often, the purpose of large dams is to facilitate inter-basin transfers. The local people will have to make allowances in the larger interests of the nation. One example is the Sardar Sarovar Project. After all, the Narmada project is meant to irrigate the areas of Sabarmati, Banas and Luni.

Inter-basin transfers hold the key to equitable water distribution in India. How effective do you think our inter-basin transfers have been?
Water projects for inter-basin transfers will become increasingly important in the future for the water-deficit basins. The National Water Development Agency, a society established under the ministry of water resources in 1982, has undertaken studies with respect to such potential river links in the country. The problem is that inter-basin transfers have not been integrated to our water policy. Such transfers should be done keeping in mind the type of crop that can grow in a particular area, the kind of industry that can come up and the region's employment potential. This may have been our target, but so far, we have not been able to achieve it.

Though the thrust has been on big dams and tubewells since independence, as opposed to groundwater recharge, why do you still maintain that not enough has been done on big dams?
Though land and water management practices to maximise soil productivity and water-use efficiencies have been ignored, it still doesn't mean we have done enough in the field of large dams. I agree that between 1951 and 1985, more than Rs 15,026 crore was spent on major and medium irrigation projects. Though this was much higher than the expenditure on small projects, it was still not enough.

The current approach to water resource management is biased in favour of the centralised model of development planning and governance. How do you respond to this criticism?
While I agree with this, I think it's the people who are to blame, particularly the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) working in the field. Beyond a point you can do precious little to change the attitude of bureaucrats. Besides, the government cannot formulate a uniform water policy for the whole country. Therefore, it is the responsibility of grassroot organisations to set priorities. The NGOs have also failed to formulate any strategy on water conservation in their own areas of operation. Ultimately, matters are left to the discretion of the local authorities.

The groundwater situation is critical in parts of Saurashtra, Coimbatore district and the Pennar basin in Andhra Pradesh. Do you feel the situation is irreversible?
The groundwater problem has become critical because of faulty extraction methods. When groundwater is lifted from dug wells manually or by animal power, the draft could hardly exceed the natural recharge potential. But when you use diesel or electricity to pump water, a greater quantity of groundwater can be extracted, but it cannot be sustained on a long-term basis. This is precisely what has happened in India. We now require a comprehensive strategy for groundwater management for each locality comprising high-level technological inputs as well as administrative and legal measures to regulate the withdrawals.

How effective do you think such groundwater laws would be?
We don't have groundwater laws as yet. But simply enacting laws won't stop groundwater depletion. Though our lawmaking efforts have been very slow, the situation won't improve unless there are attitudinal changes. As it is, people are critical of top-down models.

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