DECCAN HERALD Sunday, March 19, 2000

Medha takes Narmada to The Hague

From R Akhileshwari
DH News Service
THE HAGUE (Netherlands), March 18

Verbal fireworks were witnessed between Gujarat Irrigation Minister Jay Narayan Vyas and Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Ms Medha Patkar at the Second World Water Conference here on Friday.

Mr Vyas who addressed a session on water and energy defended the construction of Narmada Dam despite a long drawn struggle waged against it in international, national fora and courts of law led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. His argument was that the people of Gujarat would benefit in several ways from the Narmada Dam such as sufficient drinking water, energy and also get protection from the diseases afflicting them due to consumption of fluoride-contaminated groundwater.

BENEFITS LISTED: Mr Vyas in his longish presentation listed out the benefits from the dam to the people including tribals, and cited findings of a study that said that tapping surface water was the only solution to the perennial water shortage in the state.

He pointed out 80 per cent of Gujarat was facing water scarcity due to the falling table of groundwater. Also since 20 per cent of the state had 80 per cent of water resources it was necessary to dam Narmada to ensure more people got the benefit of irrigation and drinking water.

He also mentioned that a large amount of water had flowed into the sea in the last monsoon when Narmada was in spate. He maintained that hydel energy was not only the cheapest but also the cleanest from environment point of view.

He called upon all the right thinking people if water was not a human rights issue for the people of Gujarat when they were dying of diseases caused by natural contamination of groundwater resources.

Activist and Booker Prize winner author Ms Arundhati Roy intervened to say that it was 'astounding` that the minister in his long speech failed to speak of the 15-year old people`s movement opposing the dam. She accused him of being hypocritical in defending the dam in the face of contrary evidence and mass opposition from the people.

When Mr Vyas replied that all efforts were on to rehabilitate the displaced persons, Ms Medha Patkar intervened to point out that studies had shown that the dry Kutch region could be supplied with water more at less cost than Narmada dam, he called her a liar.

COMMOTION: Shoutings and counter-shoutings from the opponents of large dams created commotion and a slanging match followed between the audience and the speakers. Ms Patkar contested the minister`s claim and pointed out that the drinking water plan did not figure in the orginal Sardar Sarovar Plan and that the cost escalation of the project was not due to the Supreme Court judgement.

She quoted the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewarage Board had in a study found that utilisable water could be used on less cost based on the participatory approach. Besides more water would be available to the Kutch region in this approach.

Water meet examines women's view

Women form the major force dealing with water in many communities all over the world. They also bear the burden of water shortages. Contaminated water makes children sick and force women to trudge long distances to fetch a few pots for the family`s needs. This prevents them from taking up economic activities which could supplement family income and empower both the women and their families. Yet they have only a minimal say in managing water resources.

The Second World Water Conference being held here by the World Water Council in association with several development- focussed international bodies discussed at length the issue of ''mainstreaming`` the gender perspective in water resources management.

The report of the World Commission for Water in the 21st century emphasising community participation as a vital input for ensuring water security for poor communities points out that women`s groups have always been a key factor in promoting social capital, providing the glue that kept communities together. ''Given the gender dimension of hardship associated with lack of water access, women`s voices must be heard in all water related schemes,`` it says.

A day-long session at the conference on Friday on mainstreaming gender explained that it was a strategy for making women`s and men`s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the all policies and programmes and their implementation to ensure that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated.

Speakers at parallel sessions on the various aspects of the relationship between gender and water pointed out that women were among the largest visible users of water as they are responsible for cooking, washing and cleaning. Family hygiene and health is in their hands, and they take care of the sick when they fall ill due to contaminated water.

Women and girls in developing countries spend an estimated 40 billion hours hauling water from distant and frequently, polluted sources. They spend an estimated eight hours daily carrying up to 40.8 kg water on their heads or hips, and often over long distances. Considering that water is life and responsibility of the women, they have often resorted to desperate steps when their tolerance was tested by continuous indifference of the government to their needs.

For instance women kidnapped water officials in Mexico, took their children and unwashed clothes to the fountain in front of the Governor`s Palace and bathed and washed them right there. They have also mobilised themselves into small groups and took on and managed their own water sources as in Kenya, Honduras and Burkina Faso where women have organised their own local water supply, financed a connection, fixed the tariff, provided employment for women to manage it, and promoted water-oriented small ventures such as tea shops, beer brewing and a launderette which were possible with the availability of water.

In Gujarat, the well known organisation of women SEWA launched a water campaign in nine districts which has become a model in mainstreaming gender in water resources management. Over 10 years village and locality committees of women constructed 15 farm ponds, recharged 120 tubewells, repaired village ponds and recharged check dams and open wells. A decrease in salinity of land through soil and moisture conservation work resulted in as much as 4000-odd hectares of land becoming available which is now being used to grow cash crops.

The women`s agenda at the conference is to strengthen the community dimension in water resources management, build alliances of women and men on water to ensure its just reallocation, mobilise political will through advocacy programmes for sanitation, education and so on, get involved in formulating water policies and participatory approaches with the intention of strengthening women`s role in reallocation of the scarce and precious water resources.

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