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Integrated Water Policy:CAN ECONOMY GROW SANS IT?, by Shivaji Sarmar, 18 June, 2010 Print E-mail

Economic Highlights

New Delhi, 18 June 2010

Integrated Water Policy



By Shivaji Sarkar


The death of the Sultanpur lake in Haryana has raised a national debate. The focus is over water availability in the country as also its uses particularly in industry and agriculture. The big concern is if water bodies go on dying like that would the industry, agriculture and economy grow as projected?


Consensus largely is that it would not. Besides, it is just not the case of an isolated lake but that countrywide there has been a concern over training and tunneling of river streams, changing river courses and high-irrigation backed agriculture. Industry has not only been a water guzzler but also the worst polluter turning many major and minor streams into caustic nullahs.


The green revolution has largely ignored low-water using plants and created a kind of mono-culture in terms of food. The low-water using foods like millet, jowar and bajra are less cultivated. Only last year owing to severe rainfall shortage there have been reports of higher millet cultivation.


The World Bank and the United Nations have come out with many studies stressing backing up crops that could use less water. The statistics that rice and wheat use staggering quantity of water has added to the concern. The reports have backed cultivation of crops and also varieties of wheat and rice that are less water demanding.


It is just not in India, worldwide too many fresh and brackish water lakes are either drying up or shrinking including the Dead Sea and Aral Sea. Even evaporation from the Aswan Dam lake in Egypt has accelerated.


Thus experts have given a call for a change in agricultural practices not only to conserve water but also to increase food yields for a population growing beyond a billion. India has to evolve a policy not only for itself but also for global food security. Any imbalance as it has been witnessed during the past few years leads to global food shortage and severe inflationary situation. However, it is difficult to ascribe the food inflation in the country to this alone.


There are other reasons including manipulation of food stocks, hoarding and practices of large MNC retail chains that lead to severe wastage of packed foods. Stress on processed and packed foods has also deleterious effect on the food availability as well as its impact on ecology and water bodies.


Though largely the discussion has been centred on high water uses in agriculture less has been talked about the industry. While agriculture definitely has to match the changing climatic pattern, there has been little debate on the industry that not only is increasing its water needs but also is polluting the fresh water sources across the country


In the past several decades, industrial production has increased in India owing to an increasingly open economy and greater emphasis on industrial development and international trade. Water consumption for this sector has consequently risen and will continue growing at a rate of 4.2 per cent per year (World Bank, 1999). According to the World Bank, demand for industrial, energy production and other uses will rise from 67 billion cubic metre to 228 billion cubic metre by 2025.


The industry which has entrenched itself deeply into politics has not tried to come out with a low-water use policy. High profit motives have driven it leading to unsustainable health and hygiene conditions across industrial belts. The impact goes beyond and has known to have sullied farms, irrigation sources and major water bodies. Ultimately, it affects agriculture and food yields.


Policy formulations have been isolated for pollution norms and never been looked at in an integrated manner. The approach that industry has little to do with agriculture is faulted. It is dependent for its survival on a good crop and it has been witnessed across the world that farm yields decide consumption and industrial production pattern.


It also requires a river basin/watershed and/or irrigation system perspective for resource management decisions. This would help to avoid situations where, although individual operations on a given farm may be very efficient, the cumulative effects of many farms undermine the capacity of freshwater resources and ecosystems to provide long-term, sustainable services for people. A river basin perspective also enables ecological flow regimes to be defined that conserve biodiversity and ensure continued related goods and services for human population.


The Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CA), an ambitious programme co-sponsored by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) pulled together the work of 700 experts over a five year period. The programme took stock of the past 50 years of water development to determine what future actions would be needed for the next 50 years.


Fresh water usage from existing river basins has already been stretched to the limits, with no possibility of more of it being available to produce the additional food the world may need over the next decades. This future scenario looks gloomy as population in the region is food insecure even at the current levels of food production; raising their consumption levels would itself entail considerable additional need for fresh water, the report finds.


Policy impetus for watershed management hasn't translated into effective results during the past three decades. A case in point is the finding of the Parthasarathy Committee, constituted by India's Ministry of Rural Development. The committee's report, released in January 2006, concluded that “watershed programmes have been bureaucratically driven and mechanically implemented with focus on 'outlays rather than outcomes' and 'accounting rather than accountability”. The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in its recent regional assessments of watershed programmes, argues that many watershed programmes suffer from inherent inertia to transform the rain-fed areas. What it does not say is that many of the programmes have failed due to collusion between bureaucrats and industrialists.


Interestingly, many of these issues are becoming international as the recent controversies on Chenab and Sutlej waters between India and Pakistan is slated to be turned into international disputes.


Somehow, neither the Planning Commission nor any other Government agency has started treating controversies on water in a holistic manner. Industry, agriculture, food practices and pollution are all treated separately. Bureaucracy in each ministry tries to protect the interests of each of the different groups.


The Government therefore has to change its approach and evolve a policy on water which takes the primary interest of agriculture but must stress on the efficient use and diversified low-water use crops. Industrial, urban, rural and all other needs have to be taken into account so that the nation progresses as targeted beyond 2050, when most of us would not be around. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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