The problem

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‘When the well is dry we know the worth of water.’

Benjamin Franklin

WATER is perhaps the most compelling narrative of the times we live in today. Mankind’s dependence on water has shaped the establishment and growth of civilizations, and continues to influence every aspect of our lives – even the lives of the few lucky ones who may yet have the luxury of taking it for granted. Rapid population growth following industrialization has today created the conditions for intense contests over water. Its (water) availability has come under increasing stress, giving rise to potential international and intra-national conflicts. Simultaneously, at the local level, discord over entitlements, access and pricing are poised to exacerbate.

Cataloguing and understanding the diverse nature of these conflicts and contests over water is crucial to a better understanding of the very idea of the ‘management’ of water as a resource. For, any attempt to ‘manage’ such a vital resource becomes by its very nature a political act, whether at the individual, local, regional or international level. It becomes political as the associated interventions serve to either reinforce or challenge the existing distribution of power and power relationships that determine issues of rights, access and use.

Therefore, for a wider perspective, it may be instructive to imagine the various narratives around water as four different shades of the same blue. The first shade of blue confers on water political overtones, treating it as a geophysical property with issues relating to sovereignty and ownership; a second shade confers on it the status of a commodity that can be priced and traded; the third shade reflects the governance and policy framework that lies at heart of any debate on the political economy of water. However, what is often lost in all these shades is perhaps the deepest and yet the most transparent shade of blue – the people, their lives and livelihood, the traditions and practices associated with cultures – the myriad amorphous things of the everyday that it takes to live a life of dignity. Above all it refers to the larger ecology of water and water systems that goes to nourish far more than human lives.

For centuries water by its very nature has fulfilled a dual geopolitical role. On the one hand, as a naturally occurring barrier it has served to delimit geopolitical boundaries, defining frontiers between tribes and states. Simultaneously, it has refused to be itself limited by the very spaces it may have helped define. The result is that all forms of community – whether family, village, state or nation – have had to share it across political, international, interstate, regional and local spaces. With time the character of these communities and their priorities change. Population growth, the shifting patterns of agriculture or industry, migration, human intervention, and environmental degradation associated with these activities may then form the core of many of the intensely political conflicts about sharing of waters. The political dimension of water thus encapsulates the complex inter-relationships between various social, economic and environmental aspects.

The temporal and spatial distribution of water resources today remains one of the main challenges for sustainable water management. The problem is that, say in South Asia, such management is sought to be done independently in segregated local regions within the Ganga, Mahakali, and Indus river basins. Water sharing and management agreements have been formulated and continue to be negotiated between India-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal. To these add the many interstate water sharing conflicts such as the Cauvery river dispute, Ravi-Beas water dispute etc. They are enough to remind us that formal dispute settlement mechanisms are all too often perceived as ambiguous and ineffective, leading to repeated dependence on legal action for enforcement. Interstate water disputes tend to get entangled with more general centre-state conflicts and political matters that often defy resolution. Recently differences over the quantum of Teesta waters to be shared between West Bengal and Bangladesh even threatened to derail the overarching settlement that India and Bangladesh were hoping to enter into.

The conflicts themselves may be either the symptoms or the consequence of ineffective institutional mechanisms that ultimately threaten lives and livelihoods. Whatever their nature, politically managed information asymmetries tend to spill over into manifestations of hardened identities dealing with intensely political definitions of who constitutes the ‘them’ and ‘us’. Managing the political complexities surrounding water therefore necessitate the building of a common vocabulary and information system for a better understanding for the sharing of this resource.

A growing consumerism has given rise to differing narratives around whether it pays in the long run to commoditize the commons. These are reflected in the contrary positions taken by various transnational actors and institutions. The commons versus commodity debates have proliferated even more following attempts at urban water supply privatization since the 1990s. One side sees pricing as the key to conservation and regulation of a scarce resource; the other tends to treat it as restricting what is essentially a public and human right.

The debate in its present shape has been largely a consequence of the water-as-a-commodity model failing to meet its professed social and economic objectives. Privatization campaigns have done precious little to improve drinking water supply to lower income groups in most instances. The political economy of privatization tends to abandon non-paying and commercially unattractive supplies to ill-run public sector utilities while high income enclaves are transferred to the private sector. In specific cases, a combination of rent seeking and maladministration, endemic to public water supply projects, has only left the deprived sections far worse off than before.

The ‘cost coverage’ or ‘cost plus’ approaches that laid the foundation of private sector participation are now considered as untenable for both the private sector and public utilities. Today, even erstwhile champions of water privatization such as the World Bank have become far less enthusiastic about private sector participation. Given the current dynamics, the private sector may play only a marginal role in financing water infrastructure in the future.

Many of the current debates over commoditization versus commons veer toward a Malthusian discourse of increasing scarcity based on the gloomy arithmetic of rising population and declining water availability. However, the problem more often is not so much of availability as it is of access and entitlement. People remain excluded because of poverty, limited legal rights or public policies that inadequately and inequitously regulate rights of access to water and water infrastructure. Scarcity itself is the consequence of power relationships and the institutions that frame these relationships do so in ways that ultimately disadvantage the poor. The final and most frequented outcome being that the poor get less, pay more and bear the brunt of costs in terms of human development. Hence, the significance of the third shade of blue that relates to the governance and policy framework.

In the real world the act of policy-making itself is seldom the rational objective exercise its proponents make it out to be. More often it is the negotiated outcome of keen contests over shared spaces between several stakeholders. Policy then becomes the expression of shifting power relationships, the manifestation of which may have significant and often unintended consequences on water, its pricing, usage, management and consumption.

Access to water is an integral part of the right to livelihoods. It means ensuring affordable physical access to each and every individual as the cornerstone of the right to life itself. All across South Asia, with these economies transforming themselves into economic powerhouses, there is an increasing demand from competing large scale users in industry and agriculture. The future is bound to see conflicts between industry and local populations regarding access to water as well as its quality. As it is South Asia suffers from arsenic, fluoride and metal contamination putting large sections of the population at risk. As populations increase and industry grows the cost of water pollution is likely to rise exponentially, leading to new dynamics that would need urgent resolution.

At the other end of the spectrum, in areas where institutional structures for regulating and distributing water are poor or non-existent, the key to sustainable governance systems lies in whether they enable local communities to plan autonomously for the long-term management of their resources or do they reduce them to becoming mere recipients of the outcome of someone else’s projects and ambitions. The latter invariably results in unsustainable practices giving rise to future conflicts. The need in such cases may be to create a governance framework that helps organize and mobilize agricultural communities to identify their own priorities and take over the responsibility as well as management of local resources.

For instance, policies promising subsidized power, along with minimum support prices for selected crops, today threaten to undermine the wider ecology of agriculture in certain regions. They have worked in tandem to skew cropping patterns in favour of crops with assured prices even though such crops may be highly water intensive. Even as the groundwater table stands depleted by the overuse of inefficient water extracting pumps that waste both water and power, unsustainable farm practices lead to progressive degradation of the soil. A better recourse may be to craft policies that support farming communities to evolve the best suited farming strategies instead of unintentionally serving to shape practices and produce at the farm-end.

The problem is not confined to any single region. At the heart of the water challenge faced by most of South Asia, a challenge that spills over into disputes between countries and states within these countries, is the issue of governance. The rigid and very clinical geopolitical division of river systems and therefore of the rights and responsibilities of riparian states has resulted in indivisible river systems being mismanaged in untenable and arbitrary geographical compartments. Given the rate of urbanization and industrialization in South Asia, many policy challenges, essential to the conservation of the resource and to build the physical infrastructure and social awareness necessary for its fair use and distribution, remain to be addressed. As such, water policies in most of the nations in South Asia fail to protect life’s most vital natural resource.

Finally, the interconnected and interacting nature of wetland ecologies integrates aquifers, lakes, marshes and the combined actions of innumerable tributary streams into a ‘living system’. Thus merely viewing water through the prism of entitlements, property, commodity or sovereignty neglects the far deeper water-life and water-livelihood linkages. The dominant debate on water has tended to detract attention from the more important issue of how water is accessed and used, in combination with other assets, to sustain not just livelihoods but living systems. The politics and policy discourse on water transforms complex river systems into a quantitative notion, failing to recognize the ecosystems, the local traditions and cultural practices around water. These form the critical missing link in the politics and policy of water.

Yes, it is increasingly apparent that over the next two decades water will become a growth inhibitor if attention is not paid to the various aspects of water use, access, ownership, control and management. Soil degradation, poverty, food security, water quality and water flow depletion stand in the way of achieving sustainable development. Environmental stability may be a millennium development goal to be achieved by 2050, but it would be impossible to attain without integrated policies and systems for the management of land and water for inclusive growth. Yet, beyond all these water remains a resource that is essential for and shared by the far larger community of all living things.

This issue of Seminar seeks to outline the theoretical and evidence based discussions that describe the water saga in South Asia, in the hope that it will help advance the level of the ongoing discourse.



* We acknowledge the contribution of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), and its partners – the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) in putting together this issue.