India’s Local Water Conflicts Are a Looming Threat
Image Credit: Flickr/ Ninara

India’s Local Water Conflicts Are a Looming Threat


With 40 percent of India facing drought conditions and 500 million people severely affected this summer, an alarm is being sounded by the media, academia, environmental activists, and even politicians — India is on the brink of an acute water crisis. Water scarcity in India will intensify further as its 1 billion-plus population grows and urbanizes, increasing water demand.

A study by the NITI Aayog shows that around 600 million people in India face a severe water shortage, and it’s “only going to get worse” as 21 cities are likely to run out of groundwater by 2020. From the small, impoverished farms of the hinterland to megacities spearheading economic growth, water woes plague every region and community in the form of droughts and floods, contamination and scarcity, overexploitation and inaccessibility, and stakeholder conflicts. While the economic and environmental setbacks of these problems are immediately apparent, less noticed are their sociocultural implications. Even rarer is the understanding that India’s internal water woes are directly connected to its national security.

The word “internal” is of significance here. India’s economic and geopolitical stakes in transboundary river basins are recognized as an important component of national security, but domestic issues — even within the same transboundary river basins — are regularly categorized as environmental, economic, social, technological, governance, political, or simply “water” issues – anything but an issue of national security.

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A democratically elected and legally constituted government is responsible for the security and wellbeing of its people. It is the government’s responsibility to secure the health, environment, access to water and energy, education, and employment of the society, and — specifically in India’s case – welfare of the agriculture sector. Water resources play a direct and central role in ensuring all these factors, which contribute to the overall progress and prosperity of the nation. Without conservation and judiciousness in their use, water resources are in a danger of serious depletion, leading to socioeconomic conflicts in the society and threatening national security.

Delinking water issues from national security undersells the threat involved. Take, for example, the very local issues of a contaminated Bhima river flowing from upstream Pune to Solapur, or a contaminated Yamuna flowing from upstream Delhi to Agra. As against the national urban average of 30 percent, Pune and Delhi treat 66 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of the day-to-day sewage they generate. In the absence of an adequate number of well-equipped and functioning sewage treatment plants in both Pune and Delhi, the downstream populations of Solapur, Agra, and other towns and villages nearby face problems regarding clean drinking water, public health and hygiene and irrigation due to the untreated sewage (between 34 percent to 60 percent of the total) flowing in the rivers — sewage which they did not generate in the first place. Prolonged suffering in these downstream regions has induced large-scale migration, crowding the very upstream cities that have caused the suffering, stressing their resources and creating further competition and conflict. More important (and less highlighted) is the growing resentment among downstream populations toward the affluent, seemingly unconcerned citizens staying upstream, who by the virtue of their position seem to get away with their actions.

Or consider the case of Bengaluru, which, despite not being in the Kaveri basin, has been awarded a total of 4.75 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water annually to meet the drinking water needs of its burgeoning urban population. A city once known for its lakes, Bengaluru is fast sinking into a chronic water crisis, but not a word of caution or reprimand was uttered by the Kaveri Tribunal; instead, precious water was transferred from small towns and villages to this megacity hailed globally for its impressive strides in the IT and start-up space. Another telling example of inter-basin transfer is the massive diversion of water from the dry and drought-prone Krishna river basin in western Maharashtra to the high-rainfall Konkan region of coastal Maharashtra. While people in the Krishna basin, spread across Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, suffered from recurring droughts, depleting and polluted groundwater, and increasing difficulties in accessing safe drinking water, around 67.5 TMC of water was being diverted from Koyna sub-basin, plus 51.3 TMC from six dams owned by Tata Power in the Bhima sub-basin, to generate 450 MW of power for the city of Mumbai. Not only did this action completely violate the National Water Policy, but it also was a blatant manifestation of priorities skewed toward an urban megacity at the cost of the millions living in semi-urban and rural communities in the surrounding regions. It was only in May 2016 that the Mumbai High Court announced a reversal of this ridiculous inter-basin transfer, but no steps have been taken in that direction.

Such inequity in the access to a resource as fundamental as water is bound to trigger migrations, sociocultural resentment, pressure on urban resources, and competition and conflict. The extent and intensity of the problems can only be imagined, for they are neither documented nor broadcast widely and effectively across mainstream media. Wherever they are, they are labelled simply as “water” issues. Moreover, such situations across the country are not viewed all at once, as one full picture; each of them is treated as a separate, “local” issue and consequently, their cumulative impact on regional stability and security is either not grasped or is ignored. What is urgently required is a broad vision at the highest levels that connects these seemingly isolated disputes and recognizes their potential impact on the overall economy, sociocultural fabric, political stability, and security of not only the regions in which they occur, but also of the entire country.

As is the case with most problems India faces as a country, current solutions treat the symptoms, not the problem. Since Independence, India has adopted a top-down, techno-economic approach focused consistently on augmenting or at least securing supply and subsidizing access, and, in the case of disputes, on state-centric, rights-based, and divisive solutions. The current approach is thus doubly limited, and hence it is no surprise that the results are suboptimal, at best.

Solving these complex problems would require a major overhaul. At the macro level, India’s water policies, both national and transboundary, should devise and embrace governing principles of water sharing and management reflecting India’s geographical position as a middle riparian. This is because as a middle riparian, India will be both required and enabled to adopt a balanced approach toward its dealings with upper and lower riparians, and this approach will also be useful internally to solve water disputes between Indian states.

Addressing issues of river contamination and sewage treatment would require a decentralized approach. The local governments or Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) of Pune and Solapur, Delhi and Agra, and scores of other such upstream-downstream cities and towns can jointly safeguard river flow and quality – this would benefit both in terms of accessing clean water and addressing problems of water-induced diseases, migration and disputes. Under the Smart Cities Mission, through a robust PPP model, and/or by roping in CSR funds, the ULBs can also be incentivized and supported to jointly set up, run, and maintain sewage treatment plants developed by indigenous innovators. Tackling problems of inter-basin transfer is more challenging; it requires sustained efforts for creating public awareness and vigilance about the issue and its consequences, building consensus on stopping unfair practices, evoking the relevant rules, laws, and frameworks in combating malpractices, and finding pragmatic, efficient solutions to developmental issues.

However, at the base of it all lie citizen participation and a sense of ownership and responsibility toward water resources. By extension, these qualities also form the core of preserving the socioeconomic-environmental security of the country. India fortunately has a vibrant civil sector, access to latest technologies, and advanced human capital, which it must use optimally. What is required is political will and vision, and equally importantly, a sense of urgency toward securing India’s resources, and the nation’s future.

Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water researcher who has researched water conflicts and cooperation in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.

Vaibhavi Pingale is a freelance researcher in the areas of labor economics and development economics.

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