"Water is a national resource"

GOURISANKAR GHOSH, executive director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Geneva, Switzerland tells NIDHI JAMWAL that there should be a regulatory framework to manage water resources nationally

Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

How is the world faring in terms of water and sanitation?
As per figures, Asia is not doing badly. The real crisis is in Africa and in rural Latin America. According to statistics, developing countries such as India are also doing well. But we should never forget that there is a great difference between statistics and ground realities. Mere extension of sanitation facilities is of little use. Unless major policy changes are undertaken, the crisis will remerge -- as is happening in India.

Industrialised countries claim that lack of good governance impedes developing countries from progressing on water and sanitation targets.
Good governance is a vague concept. Even donor countries are beset by rampant corruption. But the issue here is not one of industrialised countries versus developing countries. We need intelligent and targeted subsidies as well as dual pricing systems. Currently, such systems are not in place. So, the urban rich spend only 0.5 per cent of their incomes to buy water, while the poor cough up as much as 20 per cent for the same purpose.

Some say that water is a national resource and that states do not own it. What are your views on the matter?
I was on the committee that drafted India's first water policy in 1976-77. The opening line of the draft said that water is a natural resource. I had argued against this and had reasoned that water is a national resource. But all states had objections with my contention; water is part of the concurrent list, they said. I believe this a wrong notion for water is a serious economic input for national development. So plans for its optimum utilisation have to be developed centrally, in consultation with states. Simultaneously, local-level management has to be done by the states. This will remove disputes such as the one over river Cauvery's waters.

If local people do not own resources, then why will they conserve them?
The Union government should not interfere with local water management systems but it has step in on matters of national importance. Rivers do not stop at political boundaries. So, there is a need for transboundary management of water. Local committees alone cannot manage water for it is a dynamic element: what is upstream at one place is downstream elsewhere. So one needs a regulatory framework to manage water at the national level. India does not have such a framework now. It will do no good if a community conserves water but does not take care of upstream and downstream issues.

At the un Commission of Sustainable Development's last meet, there was much talk on ecosystems approach to water management. What is it?
I think it is akin to watershed management. Projects in Sukhomajri, Haryana and Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh are good examples of such management. These projects have tried to integrate government rainwater harvesting programmes with schemes aimed at reviving traditional management systems.

Sub-Saharan Africa is faring poorly on water and sanitation. Why?
It is a matter of concern. Studies show that the real needy live in the Sub-Saharan region. But countries here are not in the good books of international banks. One must realise that without external aid, Sub-Sahara will remain the world's most vulnerable region.

Do you agree that slow progress on millennium development targets is due to a lack of focus and strategy -- and not because funds are short?
Definitely. A country can be poor but that should not prevent its government from taking decisions. Poor nations can never be self-sufficient if their governments do not allocate even 0.1 per cent of their budgets on sanitation and depend only on external aid.

Experts claim that there has been an underestimation of people lacking sanitation. Why is that so?
Figures of sanitation coverage are derived from the number of toilets that a given population has access to. That's an erroneous method. We did a survey in rural India in 1989-90, and found that people do not even use the government-made free toilets. For instance, in Rajasthan we found that people prefer using any enlosed area to store food grains. Toilets are not their priority. So we need to educate people on this.

Are there any real indicators to know if countries are making progress on attainment of targets, or is it just a numbers game?
At present, as per methods of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund, only numbers count. However, this approach is being challenged today. I think the real test of improved access to water and sanitation is reduction of child mortality/morbidity and improvement in women's status.

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