Why knowledge isn’t the barrier to water conservation


Veena Srinivasan is a Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, where she leads the Water, Land and Society Programme. Her research interests include the impacts of urbanisation on water resources, an issue that comes back to haunt major Indian cities and enter the national discourse every summer. In June, Srinivasan was at IISc to deliver a talk at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR). Excerpts from an interview.

(Photo courtesy: ATREE/Nishant Ratnakar)

Leaving aside climate change and deficient rainfall, what are the systemic factors that contribute to water scarcity in urban and rural India?

The first thing to understand is that water availability is inherently stochastic. It rains more in some years, less in others. There is going to be variability, which changes because of climate change.

You could think of water scarcity as a long-term decline. For example, groundwater levels in Punjab – where people are irrigating their crops of rice and wheat – are going down. That’s not actually scarcity, but water is nevertheless unsustainably used. But one day we’re going to run dry, like a bank account.

What we more commonly think of as water scarcity is when human demand for water for various purposes – whether it’s for urban use, agriculture, or even the environment – exceeds the amount of water available. You have a pie which is divided based on average availability, but your rainfall keeps on changing from year to year. So in a drought year, suddenly the pie has shrunk too much and there are too many competing demands. Most of the time, that’s what we experience as water scarcity, which results in conflict.

One of the thorny issues which you identified as inhibiting our ability to address or mitigate water scarcity is what you termed the “fragmented governance of water”. Could you give an overview of this problem and the ways in which it manifests in our cities?

The problem is not so much that governance is fragmented – you can’t have a single agency which is in charge of everything. The problem is that the agencies have no mechanisms to coordinate on crucial decisions. We haven’t figured out how to put in place processes which will force agencies to coordinate on specific issues where coordination is required.

The problem is that the agencies have no mechanisms to coordinate on crucial decisions

How does this manifest? The job of the groundwater agency, the Central Ground Water Board, includes giving licenses – so they declare whether a district or a block is safe or critical or over-exploited, and they give industrial licenses based on that. Then you have the surface water agency, the Central Water Commission, which is responsible for managing the operation of dams. These are the national-level agencies but the same fragmented structure replicates at the state level also. The problem is that often they don’t talk to each other. Often, they’re double counting the available water. One agency says, “I’ll take that extra water from the stream, stick it into the ground and I’ll solve my depletion problem,” without realising that the extra water in the stream was being counted on when building that dam downstream. So the problem with fragmentation of governance is that they lack the processes to ensure that the assumptions that underpin their decisions are consistent with each other. 

Similarly, stormwater typically falls under the municipal corporation – which makes the water plans for the city – and water supply and sanitation falls under the water utility, usually an independent parastatal board, which makes the sewage plans for the city. Often these two agencies work at cross-purposes.

You wrote recently in the Deccan Herald that “decentralised components [such as wastewater recycling and rainwater harvesting] are viewed as temporary fixes by our water utilities, who dream of centralised piped water and sewerage.” This is quite apart from the pipe dream of interlinking rivers. Why is there a fascination for large-scale, centralised projects?

It comes from your training and therefore what you’re comfortable with. If you look at water utilities across the world, they tend to be staffed by engineers. But if you want decentralised wastewater recycling, you need people who have legal expertise, or instrumentation engineers, who can say what kind of monitoring framework you need to put in place to ensure that the people who are making commitments for treating wastewater are actually meeting them. This requires a certain kind of thinking about the design of institutions. Because we’ve designed our institutions – civic bodies and utilities – to have only engineers, nobody knows how to deal with a compliance plan for decentralised pieces. And therefore, they find it comfortable to create mega-infrastructure projects – like the smart city. I can understand why, if you’re an engineer, everything which has purely engineering components is inherently going to be more comfortable for you.

We also need to change the training we give civil and environmental engineers. Somebody at the talk asked what it would take to combine green and grey infrastructure – how do you create a city which uses nature-based solutions instead of only using grey infrastructure? For that, you need to bring in people who know aquatic ecology, plants, landscape ecology. But this is not how we design either our utilities or our education system that trains the engineers they hire – which is where centres such as the ICWaR are relevant. Think about why civil and environmental engineering were put together as one department. It was because there was a vision of engineering which involved concrete and dams. A person who studies BTech in water engineering has to go through courses on concrete and strength of materials, design of culverts and pipes, but not courses on plants and aquatic species. So not surprisingly, the workforce that has been feeding into our utilities has people who have only acquired a certain set of skills. The longer-term change has to come from mixing it up a little bit.

The workforce that has been feeding into our utilities has people who have only acquired a certain set of skills

You made another important point in your talk: We have had so many large projects, such as dams, completed over the last several decades but we haven’t done any monitoring and evaluation of what impact these have had. What kind of evaluation did you mean?

Everything. Starting from simple things like comparing the project’s DPR [Detailed Project Report] with what the project actually delivered, and asking if it was even half as effective as planned. Was the command area that was promised met? Were the environmental impacts anticipated? Were there unintended consequences? Were the mitigation measures put in place and were they effective? It requires many small studies to be done but none of that’s ever been done.

So we don’t know if fish ladders are effective, or what kind of fish they work for – and yet when we put new DPRs together we just recycle the same stuff. If you never actually went and checked if any of those things were ever put in place and if they worked, then on what basis are you making these plans for future projects?

You made a few points in the context of connecting science to policy – that we don’t always require cutting-edge science to feed into policy, and that scientists often end up doing modelling for the sake of modelling, which may not connect to real-world situations. Could you elaborate?

A lot of science that we do on water doesn’t necessarily feed into policy or isn’t even useful in any way. On the other hand, even the existing research is not effectively used. There are a hundred papers in Nature and Science, and every hydrology journal since 1945, which are going to tell you that ground and surface water are connected. But then it’s still not embedded into the DNA of our agencies. There you have to ask if our doing more cutting-edge research on, say, isotopic tracers on base flow in rivers is going to be the thing that’s going to move the needle – I don’t think so. I don’t think that knowledge is the barrier.

One thing that the US does very well, which we’re lacking in India, is how the National Academy of Sciences will often put out position papers on the state of the science on specific topics. It needs to say here are these big policy gaps and here’s the state of science. And that doesn’t have to be science that happened today. It’s really a gathering of all the science on this subject which summarises what we know for sure at this point in time.


To read more articles in our series on the monsoon, click on the following links:

Sulochana Gadgil: A Lifetime of Monsoon Research

MONTBLEX: India’s First Major Monsoon Experiment

Interview with Syed Ameenulla: ‘Ours was a small group, like one family’

BoBBLE: ‘An Unusually Successful Cruise’

What an Adivasi Village in Chhattisgarh Can Teach Us about Sustainable Development

Decoding the Signatures of Monsoons Past in Fossils and Genes

Chanchal Uberoi on Monsoon Melodies

Why Drain the Rivers When You Can Catch the Rain?

A Celebration of Rain

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