Towards a common goal

By Himanshu Thakkar
Published: Wednesday 30 June 2004

-- Thirsty Planet: Strategies for Sustainable Water Management by Constance Elizabeth Hunt Zed Books New York 2004 us $22.50

"Nature is not a competitor for water, Nature is the source of water." That is the central idea Constance Hunt advocates in the book, Thirsty Planet: Strategies for Sustainable Water Management, even as she explores alternative solutions to global water needs. The project at hand is both important and ambitious and the answer, undoubtedly, much-awaited.

It is indeed good to hear Hunt declare at the very outset that "There is no global solution". The important thing, as she sees it, is to recognise that ultimately all water problems are local and, consequently, it would only be prudent to look for local solutions to these local problems, at least initially. Hunt goes on to comment, "The danger in viewing the water crisis as a global problem is that such an approach leads us to search for global solutions". This is followed by a gentle reprimand: "Rather than resolving the crisis, the grafting of a globally conceived solution on a problem with complex, local causes can exacerbate the problem". In fact, the trouble with the water sector is just that: all planners, decision-makers and experts nearly always seek a macro solution, keeping the macro picture in mind. This results in the inevitable disconnect between local situations and solutions, leading to unwieldy projects such as big dams like the Sardar Sarovar, or the river-linking proposals.

The book, however, has its shortcomings. For one, the author appears to underestimate the issue of the political economy of decision-making that dictates the choice of projects, policies, companies and technologies. The last chapter is a feeble attempt to rectify this but Hunt does not go beyond the level of global bodies. No thought is spared for significant movements across the world such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan of India or the Movement Against Big Dams in Brazil. Similarly, while questioning the drive to privatise water, Hunt remains quiet about the many global instances of struggles against the commodification of water.
Another shortcoming Then again, while Hunt notes that agriculture is the biggest water-consuming sector, the treatment of the issue lacks depth. For example, the point that food production and access to food cannot be treated as separate issues is never made. She also fails to note the inequities at the local and global levels and how corporate interests drive the world food markets and the World Trade Organization. The blanket statement on floods -- "Large dams have been successful in flood mitigation and prevention" -- stands at variance with the reality. What is more, the author contradicts herself when she comments on the same page that "dams also cause or contribute to flood disasters". The chapter on navigation fails to note that a number of large dams actually destroy the existing navigation when they stop the freshwater flow downstream -- as is the case with the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river in India.

While analysing the reasons used to promote large dams/projects, a critical assessment of the hydropower projects is avoided and the issue finds only passing reference in the chapter on global warming. However, Hunt is clear about the suggestion of the large-dam-lobby that taking up big hydro projects could be one of the solutions. She says, "these pseudo-solutions to global warming has serious weaknesses the solution lies in changing global energy strategies. It is imperative that people switch from a supply-side, fossil-fuel-based energy sector to one that relies on efficiency and non-hydropower renewables." The book ends abruptly, leaving one with the feeling that a conclusion highlighting the main ideas would have helped.

This book is a valuable addition to works on global water issues and the painstaking research involved is obvious. The first chapter is an illuminating insight into the global water cycle. The book rightly predicts, "Water resources development in the twenty-first century is likely to play a substantial role in directing money flows in the global marketplace, in maintaining or disrupting regional stability, and in determining the fate of the ecosystem that support life on Earth."

The book's concluding message is worth repeating:"The only way to avoid global water crisis is for people to learn about sustainable alternatives to massive and ecologically destructive technologies, and to insist that their governments embrace these alternatives."

The author is coordinator, South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers, and People

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