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The Hindu on : The politics of water

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Saturday, April 01, 2000

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The politics of water

By Kalpana Sharma

BEFORE THE U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, visited the Taj Mahal recently, the Mayor of Agra tried hard to get the Yamuna to flow more abundantly. Yet, despite his appeals to the Haryana Chief Minister to release more water into the river, so that the stench would be dissipated somewhat before the American leader's arrival, he failed. He should have known that rivers cannot be revived instantly.

Ironically, the morning Mr. Clinton left India, another symbol of water pursued him. To his right, as he rode the final stretch to the airport in Mumbai, were fountains of water gushing from the city's water mains. These were not a farewell salute to the visiting dignitary, but the work of striking municipal workers.

Water, thus, is not just life, it is also power. Its use and abuse are deeply political issues. Like other natural resources, one cannot discuss its future without understanding the politics of water. The recently concluded mega-meeting, the World Water Forum in The Hague, attempted to side-step the politics of water as it discussed future scenarios of dried-up rivers and aquifers and water shortages that would lead to food insufficiencies and wars over water. The tonnes of paper and documentation were abundant in statistics but scarce in analysis of why the world has reached a crisis point - if indeed it has - on resources such as water.

The documents failed to adequately acknowledge that it was the frugal and conservative use of water - forced on the majority of the world's poor by its unavailability - that had put off the crisis by many years and that it is wasteful lifestyles and centralised systems that have contributed to depletion of resources. The conference spoke of extending irrigation but did not stress that irrigation networks have fuelled the substitution of food crops with water-thirsty cash crops, that the problem is not lack of water but the manner in which it is used.

A few voices, however, did bring this out and despite the din of statistics and scare-scenarios their voices were heard. For instance, the work of the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan's Alwar district came up for mention on more than one occasion. The person behind the transformation of the district through rainwater harvesting, Mr. Rajendra Singh, was a quiet observer during the meetings. On the last day, he told his stunning story of how 750 villages in a water scarce region are now water sufficient; of how the Arvari river which was a mere trickle became a seasonal river and now a perennial river through rain- water harvesting which replenished the underground aquifers and also the river; how the people of the villages on the banks of the Arvari have formed a River Parliament that determines how the water of the river should be used, how much can be pumped out and when, and the months when the river must be left alone to regenerate.

This example's validity for India and the rest of the world are beyond question. In India, twice as much water is being drawn from aquifers than is being replenished. Over-drawing of ground water has pushed down the water table to dangerous levels in many parts of the country. People are now drawing out what is called ``fossil water'' in their desperation to reach a water source. Aquifers near coastal areas have been affected by saltwater ingress. Others have been rendered useless through industrial pollution and overuse of pesticides. The Tarun Bharat Sangh strategy, or similar initiatives such as those of Mr. Anna Hazare in Maharashtra, or of women in rural Gujarat organised by the Self-Employed Women's Association, revolved around one central theme: conserve the water that is available, use it wisely, and soon there will be enough. It will enough for everyone's need but not for a few people's greed - Gandhiji's eternally valid axiom.

Yet, the issues of need and greed were not really addressed as solutions ranging from privatisation of water services, to ``using biotechnology to breed less thirsty and more drought- resistant plants'' were offered. The issue of privatisation is particularly relevant in the Indian context as several States, such as Andhra Pradesh, move towards privatising public utilities. The move is justified on several counts. One, that poor people in any case pay as much as 12 times more for water than the middle classes because they do not have access to municipal water supply and end up buying water from private vendors. This anomaly can be corrected, some believe, by creating systems of accountability that the entry of the private sector would necessitate. It is also argued that as Governments are inefficient and bureaucratic, they should not be in the business of service delivery. It is assumed that a profit-driven private sector will be more efficient.

The problem with the solution offered is that it does not address the central problem of equity. Poor people in cities do not get municipal water because the areas where they live are not serviced by water and sewerage infrastructure. Regardless of pricing, unless there is massive investment in such infrastructure, it is pointless talking of making potable water available to all. If private companies invest in such infrastructure, they will want to recover investment through much higher water charges. Just because the poor do pay more at present does not necessarily mean that they are able to do so. This money comes out of constrained household budgets and cuts into other basic necessities. Thus, setting prices according to what people actually pay, rather what they can afford to pay, is callous in poor and unequal societies such as ours.

The solution, as several participants at the water forum emphasised, was neither private nor Government-owned and run services but community-owned ``public'' services, which could be financed through private or Government sources. Their primary concern would be ``public service'' and not profit.

Water is already big business in the industrialised countries. According to information collated by the Council of Canadians, an NGO, four of the top 10 water companies - RWE from Germany, Vivendi from France, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux also from France and Enron from the U.S. - were ranked among the 100 largest corporations in the world by Global Fortune 500. In the U. S., although most of the water services are publicly owned, private water corporations, such as Enron, generate $ 80 billion a year - four times the annual sales of Microsoft.

Despite such huge profits, there is no guarantee of quality. In July 1999, Northumbrian Water, a subsidiary of Suez Lyonnaise, was declared the second-worst water company in the U.K. by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The Council states that ``once water services are privatised, local Governments often lack the clout needed to ensure that water quality and pollution standards are met and to penalise corporations who fail to meet them''. The Canadian group also points out that several of the top 10 water companies have been charged and even convicted of bribery, corruption and other offences.

Some of these facts are particularly relevant to the Indian context. Despite hundreds of big and small dams and expensive irrigation systems, many parts of India are without water. Cattle have already begun dying in Gujarat; before long we will see pictures and hear stories about people dying from drinking unpotable water.

The crisis is real and urgent, but the solutions should not be more top-down centralised systems, regardless of whether they are Government-owned or private. The strength of India, as even Mr. Clinton could not fail to recognise, is the growing decentralised democratic system. It has facilitated people such as Mr. Rajendra Singh and Mr. Anna Hazare and allowed their experiments to flourish and to be replicated. These are the solutions that have to be supported and scaled-up if we really want to deal with the water crisis. Replacing big Government with big private corporations is hardly a workable or just solution in a society with such stark disparities.

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