Sustainable Water and Sustainable Societies

Need for a speedier and integrated response to the challenges

Water Wisdom logowith Dr VR Panchamukhi, Chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, India

13 November 2003

A Synopsis

Water is the most strategic resource required for sustenance of human, animal and plant life and for maintaining ecological balance on our Planet. In the recent decades, there is a growing realization that the water management practices and the development strategies adopted in the world may soon end up in generating unsustainable water resource systems in most parts of the world. It is feared that if this trend continues, then by 2025, more than fifty percent of the world’s population living in more than eighty countries would be suffering from acute water-stress syndrome, thereby disturbing social harmony and human welfare. The Climate-Change Scenario may also reach an irreversible situation in this inter-dependent world. There is an urgent need for correcting this trend. Responses to these challenges need to be speedier and more comprehensive than what is being presently observed.

Water is a highly heterogeneous product- contrary to common perceptions- differentiated by the nature of supply sources and the typology of end uses. There are also diverse perceptions of the water problems by different people, such as, economists, environmentalists, hydrologists, politicians and even philosophers. While drinking water needs to be regarded as a social merit good in the public domain, water for agricultural and industrial uses could be considered as commercial goods/services. It is essential that people’s awareness about the impending water-crisis is strengthened and their knowledge about the remedial measures, such as water harvesting, water recycling, water conservation and avoidance of water-intensive technologies, is improved through proper education and extension services. People’s participation in the governance of all water related projects is a must for the success of the strategies aimed at evolving a sustainable water system.

Water shortages have resulted in the ruination of many agricultural families. The erstwhile green revolution has encouraged the use of water-intensive technologies and water-polluting practices. There is now a growing realization that part of the present water problem is due to the stickiness of these green revolution practices. A new Blue revolution is called for with water at the center stage of efficiency and welfare.

Induction of the market system and full commercialization of the water sector may be tempting in so far as it creates a new phenomenon of what one may call as Hydro-Dollars, as against the erstwhile Petro-Dollars. But caution should be the wisdom of the market-enthusiasts. Water is a much more pervasive and sensitive factor of human life than oil or gas and as such its implications for the evolution of a sustainable society deserve special attention.

Privatization may not be an optimal approach for all types of water problems and for all countries in different stages of development. Similarly, the approach of pricing on market-principles may not be a fair and efficient solution for all types of water services. There has to be a blend of the market and the state in dealing with the tasks of water production and distribution.

Erosion of the quality of water - both underground and surface - is a serious problem requiring urgent systemic corrections. Appropriate changes in the nature of technologies and production practices, presently being adopted in agriculture and industry, need to be identified through purposeful research and then implemented.

The Australian Experience in water management seems to provide many useful lessons for the rest of the world - in particular the developing world. The setting up of a National Water Education Programme, emphasis on providing greater opportunities to women professionals in water management tasks, advocating international agreements for discouraging production and sale of water-inefficient equipment deserve special commendation. The legal framework for dealing with water disputes and other water related problems and the water management reforms initiated in Australia, are worthy of emulation. The Australian principle of encouraging proper maintenance and utilization practices in regard to the existing water development projects as against starting of new projects, deserves special attention by the resource-poor developing countries.

Sustainability needs to be understood in a much wider setting than it is done to day. In addition to the concerns for environmental impacts and inter-generational equity, concerns for inter-regional equity and inter-class fairness as also the impacts on ecological balance and climate change, deserve to be kept in mind while examining sustainability of a system or that of a strategy. Proper correctives for the failure of the market and that of the state need to be introduced in right time, as soon as the signals of non-sustainability become manifest.

Values and life styles play a significant role in evolving sustainable societies. The present trend of encouraging unsustainable consumption habits and lifestyles, through media and demonstration effects in a globalising world, needs to be urgently halted. There is an urgent need for a proper synthesis of the materialistic approach, with what one may call a spiritualistic approach - emphasizing the much cherished values and normative codes of conduct. This would be in contrast to the mindless pursuit of purely commercial principles, as is being currently advocated in the market economy framework. Values such as contentment, caring for others, self-sacrifice, respect for human life - which are all fast disappearing from our midst, need to be restored and firmly established.

A multi-faceted approach is required to realize the cherished goals of evolving sustainable water systems and sustainable societies.