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The Hindu on : Dams and drinking water

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, December 01, 1999

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Dams and drinking water

By P. V. Indiresan

UNLIKE TECHNOLOGY, economics, sociology and politics are not precise sciences. Which is more important - providing food and drinking water to a crore of people or preventing the displacement of ten thousand tribals? That is a matter of value judgment; a question of faith. There is no way of resolving such an issue. That offers enormous leeway for social activists to make claims and accusations based purely on personal opinions. Moreover, unlike engineers, social activists do not have to deliver. For instance, Ms. Maneka Gandhi had recently remarked: ``There are cheaper ways of getting drinking water. Suppose we were to turn saline water into fresh water and then send it to villages, the route is much quicker. It would be one millionth the cost and will dislocate nobody... It (Bhakra dam) has silted so fast that we have had to build a series of dams behind it. It has cost a million times more than it should have.'' Those are strong assertions. Likewise, Prof. A. K. N. Reddy gets much agitated about the environment and says, ``a mega-project can be replaced with a mix of mini alternatives.'' That is yet another strong assertion. Nobody will ask either Ms. Maneka Gandhi or Prof. Reddy to substantiate what they say. If, however, an engineer fails to deliver or makes just one slip, he or she will be hauled over hot coals. One wonders how many social activists will survive if they too are judged by the same standards as engineers are.

In another kind of attack, Prof. Nitish Sengupta has expounded a theory of development. He says: ``Only recently has economics acknowledged this unpalatable fact of life - that all those (technologies) which succeed and predominate are not necessarily the best or most efficient. The phenomenon has come to be known as path dependency from the fact that events, not efficiencies, determine the ultimate success of technologies.'' Engineers have a simple name for this phenomenon - inertia! It need not be a surprise if any technology, once it is established, continues to hold sway even after better technologies become available. The surprise is not that obsolete technologies survive but that they do not! Inevitably, better innovations quickly supersede long- established techniques. The peculiarity about technology is not that it has inertia, but that it has so little of it. If you have any doubts try buying a valve radio or even a brass spoon!

There is so much misinformation going around about the technology of dams that it is worth recalling some basic facts concerning wastage of water. Fact No. 1. Other things being equal, doubling the height of a dam increases the volume of water stored eight times and power potential sixteen times. Alternately, for any given amount of storage, the higher the dam, the smaller will be the area that will get submerged. Therefore, if the primary concern is to minimise submergence and consequent displacement of people, it is best to construct the highest dam that is technically feasible. Fact No. 2. Unlike in Western countries, rainfall in India is erratic. In Europe, it rains virtually every week: three weeks of dry spell would be deemed a drought there. In India, most of the rainfall occurs in a few weeks in a year and that too varies substantially from year to year. So while all rivers in Europe (even small streams) are perennial, in India even large rivers are seasonal. Therefore, Europe hardly requires any water storage except to develop a head for hydroelectric power generation. In India, unless water is stored for months, there is no hope for cultivating crops round the year. Fact No. 3. India being a tropical country, evaporation loss is a major problem. Typically, 1.2 metres of water evaporate in a year. Therefore, shallow storage systems will lose most of their water by evaporation itself. Fact No. 4. In the so-called good old days, famines were a frequent pestilence even though the population was barely a fourth of what is today. It is only the secure availability of water from the many dams that have been constructed in this century that we are now able to feed our burgeoning population. Fact No. 5. Crops require water at the right time and at right amounts. With the haphazard rainfall pattern that we have there is no way of ensuring proper watering of crops without round-the-year water storage. Fact No. 6. Greening of desert areas like Rajasthan and Saurashtra is impossible using small check dams and run of the river schemes: only large dams can do so. For instance, Jaisalmer is fast ceasing to be a desert. That would have been impossible if the Bhakra dam had not been several hundred metres tall. Fact No. 7. India's rivers discharge most of their water into the sea. (The Cauvery is an exception - almost all of its water is utilised). Unless such discharge into the sea is checked, there will not be enough water for cultivation. Only large dams can prevent such wasteful discharge into the sea.

Engineers too have been making mistakes. Three of them are worth mentioning. One, in India, engineers not merely build dams and canals they also manage the distribution of water. In the United States, agronomists, not civil engineers, operate as irrigation engineers and take over the allocation of water once the storage system is completed. Being experts in agriculture, they can perform such tasks far better than engineers can. Two, engineers have no business in getting involved in issues of re- settlement. That is a separate specialisation and not an engineering task. So engineers should leave that task to appropriate experts. Three, and that is most important, no aspect of design or construction should be shrouded in secrecy. Such secrecy is being practised on the ground that the design of dams and their canal systems invariably has serious political implications, even international ones. Precisely for such reasons it is best to operate in the open and give full scope for public debate.

Many faults have been ascribed to dams large or small. Of these, rehabilitation is the true failure. At best the bureaucracy is unimaginative, at worst, it operates by rules that are asinine or even cruel. The purpose of building a dam is to spread prosperity. Evidently, those that are displaced from their homes have not been given their due share of that prosperity. Monetary compensation that is proffered is rarely the most appropriate form of compensation. Why not offer displaced people a variety of choices that will provide them substantially more income, better security and higher status too? Why not give them a chance to become truck drivers, shopkeepers, constables and what not?

Activists like Ms. Medha Patkar and Ms. Arundhati Roy assert that they are acting for the common people. Just recently, they had an opportunity to put that assertion to the acid test - they could have contested elections and shown the world that people are really with them. They chose not to do so. Peter Drucker has an explanation why such people avoid any such test, any test for that matter. ``The single-cause group delivers its power from being a minority and usually a very small one. Its strength lies in its single purpose rather than in numbers. Its task is almost never to get something done. It is to stop, to immobilise... strategies of single cause movements are always the same. They know no compromise. They hold their own single cause to be the moral absolute.'' That is the rub.

Prof. Reddy commends the ``mobilising skills of Ms. Medha Patkar, the saintly efforts of Baba Amte, the literary power of Ms. Arundhati Roy and their combined moral force backed by the popular movements.'' Engineers do not have any mobilising skills. Certainly their literary skills are next to nil, but it is not unlikely that history will consider engineers like Vishveshwariah and Khosla to be saviours. Certainly both of them have saved millions of lives that would have otherwise perished of malnutrition. As for ``moral force backed by the popular movements'' that is debatable. Who is more moral - an engineer who brings water to a parched village or the activist, who will stop him from doing so? Who has larger popular support - the one who brings hope to millions or the one who wants to preserve the impoverished culture of a few thousand people? Who has spread greater happiness in our country - Vishveshwariah or Baba Amte?

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