India should localise water resource management: expert

April 26th, 2008 - 9:48 am ICT by admin  

By Frederick Noronha
New Delhi, April 26 (IANS) India has surplus water and one of the richest traditions of managing it, but still water crisis has reached a critical level in the country, says the author of a new book on the subject. “We have to respect water and not treat it as a commodity or something to be merely consumed,” Nitya Jacob, a former business and environment journalist, told IANS.

“We have done this for too long, and our thinking has been shaped by a Westernised education system. Those ‘ignorant peasants’ know more about this than most engineers today,” he added.

“India’s diverse eco-agro-climatic-social zones have evolved their own systems that, if restored, can meet a large part of the need of people for drinking water and farming,” he said.

His new Penguin-published book is called “Jalyatra: Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems”.

“It places water resources in the local environmental and social context. It does so to make the case that water management evolved in keeping with local conditions to serve local populations,” Jacob said.

He undertook an “ecological travelogue” across India, focusing on water, and visited Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Meghalaya, and regions like the Chambal Valley and Bundelkhand.

Jacob argues that water resource management has to become localised and community-driven.

“Large centralised construction and maintenance systems cannot work in the long run because they are costly, inequitable, do not involve local people and are always seen as exploitative,” he said.

“We are in a crisis of our own making but things haven’t gone out of control yet. We have plenty of water, but people have abdicated their role in looking after these resources to the government,” said the author.

Part of the problem, in his view, has to do with supply - the only solution the government has is large projects. The other part is demand, and everyone expects 24X7 water supply without lifting a finger and also waste water when they have it.

“Farmers over-irrigate because nobody has told them how much water is really needed for optimal food production. None of the farmers I spoke to had any idea how much water is actually needed because all farm extension workers or seed and fertiliser sellers tell them is the amount of fertiliser and pesticides needed, not water,” he added.

In cities that suck up water resources from miles around, supply pipes leak or are tapped by the poor, while the rich water lawns and dig ever-deeper tube-wells. They put pumps on the water mains to suck out water, Jacob noted.

“We are greedy and driven by the shortage mindset, when actually we need to watch what we are using. Industrial use is masked because they depend heavily on tankers and groundwater, both of which are tough to monitor. But industry believes the show must go on and therefore sources water regardless of quality or cost,” says Jacob.

In Jacob’s view, the biggest challenge India faces is mismanagement of water resources; pollution from natural and manmade sources; and increasing disparities in availability due to changing rainfall, shrinking surface storage and rivers being tapped at various points.

“The depth of knowledge that the ancients had about constructing water structures (is surprising). So is the extent to which water was respected as the giver and destroyer of life.”

About traditional water works, he said sometimes these were undertaken to employ people. But these were usually constructed to ensure there was enough water for agriculture and human consumption to tide over years when the rains failed.

Jacob draws a history of how India’s equation with water changed over time. His book also brings out the cultural and religious links with water in India.

“Life began in water and we use it for everything - drinking, eating, bathing, farming, manufacturing, clothing. It’s one of the four life forces. But we disrespect it,” Jacob added.

(Frederick Noronha can be contacted at

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