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A Plea for a Radical Change in Water Policy

A Plea for a Radical Change in Water Policy

Water, Ecosystems and Society: A Confluence of Disciplines by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

A Plea for a Radical Change in Water Policy

Ramaswamy R Iyer

ne must begin by declaring one’s total agreement with the central theme of this book, namely, the need for a shift from the reductionist approach to water policy, planning and management prevailing in the Indian water establishment to a new, radically different, holistic and interdisciplinary one.

By “a reductionist approach” what the author means is essentially an engineering approach to rivers (i e, dam-building), which came to India with colonial rule. The adverse consequences of that approach are now widely recognised. Even in the short term the balance between benefits and costs is very uncertain, and in the long run it is simply not a sustainable approach. The book argues that it is necessary to move on to a new approach which brings engineering, water science, ecology and social sciences together in an integrated, holistic manner. This requires the generation of new interdisciplinary know ledge, and the components and dimensions of that knowledge are set forth in detail in Chapter 1. The marshalling of r elevant information and scholarship and the rigour of the argument are powerful and p ersuasive.

Even more illuminating is the chapter on floods (Chapter 2). The chapter points out that the conventional engineering understanding of floods as periodically recurring disasters to be prevented through “flood control” is egregiously simplistic and wrong, and sets forth an ecohydrological approach to the understanding of floods. It explains the different kinds of floods and the diversity of the causative factors, distinguishes natural floods from human-induced ones, draws attention to the benefits that floods could bring, refers to the ways of “living with floods” developed by many traditional societies and the lessons to be learnt from them, and calls for a major transformation of the thinking about floods. It is one of

book review

Water, Ecosystems and Society: A Confluence of Disciplines by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2009; pp xiv + 192, Rs 550.

the best pieces of writing on floods that one has come across.

Leaving aside the chapter on valuation for the present, let us turn to the chapter on the interlinking of rivers (ILR) project (Chapter 4). It has been written about extensively, and the dubious propositions underlying it have been deconstructed. The project is in the doldrums and the United Progressive Alliance government is not actively pursuing it. Nevertheless, it has not been formally abandoned, and may become live again at some future date. It is therefore good for it to be subjected to a careful critique. That is what the book does. It may be asked: why was it necessary to do so? What is the relevance of the critique to the theme of the book? The answer is that if the theme is the need for a major change from the old approach to a new one, it is useful to take note of and demolish the last vestiges of the old thinking. The ILR project is the culmination and apotheosis of the old approach. In Ken Conca’s Governing Water (MIT Press, 2005), an American water manager is quoted as saying “I love pushing rivers around”. That is a profoundly significant remark which uncon sciously reveals a whole way of thinking, which is shared by our own water engineers, though none of them might have actually said anything similar. The ILR project is an embodiment of that way of thinking, and it is good that the book under review exposes this.

Some Partial Reservations

From wholehearted agreement with the author one has to move to partial reservations, though these do not detract from one’s

decEMBER 5, 2009

admiration for the book. Let us start with a few minor points relating to the Preface.

  • (i) Granting the imperative of changing from a reductionist perspective to a holistic one, why is this equated with a change of perception of water from “stock” to “flow”? Is this the most important characteristic of the change?
  • (ii) Malin Falkenmark is quoted as identifying the ultimate challenge as finding “a proper balance between the humans and the impacts caused to the environment”. That sounds very reasonable, but it still exemplifies dualistic thinking. If we postulate a conflict, we can counsel b alance. However, would not holistic thinking c onsist in envisioning harmony rather than balance?
  • (iii) There is a reference to the Dublin Statement of 1992. No doubt it says some good things but the fourth principle (“Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good”) has been the driving force behind the neoliberal economic advocacy of treating water as a tradable commodity like any other, and best left to the play of market forces. One is fairly sure that the author of the book under review does not share that perspective, but the unqualified reference to the Dublin Statement and the observation later in the P reface hailing “the emerging role of economics” and its “potential of enlarging the framework” gives rise to some misgivings.

    These are reinforced when one reads Chapter 3 on valuation. We must turn to that chapter now. The author who rightly describes the old engineering perspective on water as reductionist surprisingly fails to note that the economic view of water has been equally reductionist. “Define property rights in water and make them tradable”: that is the doctrine that the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and some of our own economists have been advocating. It is a profoundly reductionist view of water that ignores several aspects and dimensions of water. Moreover, it is precisely a combination of engineering (or technology) and economic perspectives (the pursuit of economic growth) that has led humanity to its present plight of having to cope with c limate change. How then can we expect economics to lead us from engineering to a larger perspective?

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    The author is of course aware that many have reservations about the economic perspective, but the objections that he takes note of are of a particular kind, namely, those which see that perspective as leading to the privatisation of water services. Going beyond that particular criticism, the question that one is asking is the following: if the author wishes to see a transition from the old reductionist engineering perspective to a new holistic one that encompasses engineering, ecology, social sciences, and so on, is the “emerging” economic perspective the route to take? Is it really capable of “enlarging the framework”? (It can hardly be described as “emerging”; it has been there for quite some time, and it has not led to any larger vision.)

    One is not adopting a position hostile to economics as a discipline; that would be foolish. Nor is one unaware of the usefulness, indeed the essentiality, of economic analysis as one of the aids to major investment decisions. One can even assent to the proposition that the scarcity of a natural resource must be a factor that enters into its pricing. Again, natural resource accounting is certainly a useful aid to conservation. However, all this is known, and is to some extent conventional wisdom, though it may not be fully practised. None of this, not even institutional economics (which is no longer new), counts as holism or leads to it.

    Incidentally, it is significant that even when we wish to advocate radical departures, we tend to think that expressing that advocacy in economic terms will make it more persuasive. If in advertisements it is felt that sex sells, in policy advocacy it appears that economics sells. The discipline of ecological economics, for instance, is partly an attempt to introduce a new kind of economics, but it is also partly an attempt to make ecology more persuasive by marrying it to economics. (That is a general observation and not a comment on anything that the author has said.)

    A similar observation can be made about the term “ecosystem services” that has gained currency. One (meaning this reviewer) would prefer to regard water as the bounty of nature. The European Water Framework Directive refers to water as a “heritage”. However, our economic bent is strong, and we like to call it an ecosystem service, thus converting nature into a “service provider”

    Economic & Political Weekly

    decEMBER 5, 2009

    such as Tatas or Reliance or Delhi Jal Board. We then remember that water is also needed by wildlife, vegetation and the river itself, and accommodate “ecology” in our list of priorities for allocations of water, thus converting ourselves into service providers for Nature! This is merely an illustration of the hold that economic thinking has on our minds.

    On a Few Details

    From those general observations let us proceed to a few short comments on d etails.

  • (i) P 8: The reference to Wittfogel’s untenable theory of “hydraulic civilisations” could perhaps have been avoided.
  • (ii) P 17: The unqualified reference to the desirability of high rates of economic growth comes as a surprise. The transformation that the author wishes to bring about must entail a radical change in ideas of “development”. “Sustainable development” is an oxymoron if the term “development” is understood in the prevailing sense. When Mahboob ul Haq first said that growth was not enough, it was a landmark statement indicative of a major shift in thinking. We now need another major shift and one more landmark statement, perhaps to the effect that growth is not only not enough but is even questionable; that it is a fatal delusion; that its pursuit is a spell from which we must free ourselves; and that our goal should be sanity, s tability, and harmony.
  • (iii) P 20: Briscoe and Malik have indeed cautioned against “business as usual” but their prescriptions include substantial additions to “water infrastructure”, i e, dams. The author is hardly likely to end orse that prescription. One wishes that the citation of these authors had been qualified.

  • (iv) P 21 (“wider application of econo mics in water policy and governance”) and pp 104, 121 (valuation in monetary terms of biodiversity conservation in wetlands, and of ecosystem services): one’s reservations on these will be clear from the discussion of economics above.
  • (v) P 28: “…paddy being cultivated in waterscarce areas like the Cauvery Delta and Rajasthan”: There is a world of difference between the two cases. In Rajasthan and in Punjab/Haryana, paddy was not a traditional crop; it emerged as the result of the availability of canal waters for
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    irrigation from the Bhakra Nangal and Rajasthan Canal Projects. It was a case of water being made available for irrigated agriculture in a relatively water-scarce area, setting up an unmanageable demand for more water and still more water. This must change. In the Cauvery delta, paddy cultivation goes back to Chola times, i e, it is almost 2,000 years old. It is not just a question of cropping pattern. Rice cultivation, consumption and trade form the bedrock on which a whole way of life and culture have been built up. We cannot ask the people there to abandon them and change to something else. Certainly, as the availability of water declines because of upstream development (in Karnataka), the farmers will have to learn to live with less water and make adjustments – perhaps growing paddy with less water, perhaps changing to other crops partially. The story here has been one of a water-abundant area becoming water-stressed – quite a different story from that of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

    (vi) Pp 38-39: It is disheartening that the author supports desalination. Assuming that new technology has found a way of recovering freshwater from saline water without generating (warmer) brine to be discharged into the sea, the point is that Tamil Nadu has an average rainfall of 1,000 mm. Would that not suggest extensive rainwater-harvesting wherever feasible? Where is the need for recourse to the desalination of sea water?

    (vii) P 133: “willingness to pay” (WTP) – this concept is fraught with danger: (see Resisting Reform? by Kshithij Urs and Richard Whittell, reviewed by this reviewer in The Hindu, 26 May 2009).

    The points made above are not necessarily disagreements with the author. He may well agree with some of them at least partially, though some differences will probably remain. However, it is not right to end on a note of difference. In conclusion, this review must return to the high praise with which it started. The transformation that the author urges is necessary and urgent. Despite its slimness, the book is a very important contribution towards that end and must be warmly welcomed.

    Ramaswamy R Iyer ( is with the Centre for Policy Research and has written extensively on issues related to water.

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