July 7, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Treading Water

A recently published report titled ‘Attitude towards Water in South Asia’ by Chatham House points out some startling issues on how different sets of people across the region perceive water. It was a matter of honour for the Nepal Economic Forum to be associated with this study along with four other South Asian organisations.

Gareth Price, senior research fellow at Chatham House, who spent more than a year on the study, expressed utter surprise at how findings from across five countries showed that water is not seen as a win-win situation.

International Excuse

Water management is one of the greatest challenges within countries where domestic political and institutional issues create problems. Media scrutiny increases only when there is a shortage of drinking water. The same amount of attention is never paid to the shortage of water for irrigation. Politicians do not realise that some of the problems are of their own creation. For instance, the competition in providing free power leads to an overuse of water pumps, thereby depleting ground water sources. Politicians do not think of the impact their free electricity is having on water. However, when there is a water crisis due to the overuse of ground water out of their own free water policy, they resort to blaming neighbouring countries. If there are domestic water management problems, then there can be domestic solutions to emulate also. As the study points out, if Nagpur in India can have water 24/7, why can’t other cities learn to make this happen too?

Citizens across both the Koshi as well as Farakka have been vocal on how water projects have amounted to nothing. People from neither side of the border are happy with the solutions drawn up in their capital cities. It is important to view river systems sans borders and see them from a holistic perspective. Tsangpo, Bhramaputra and Meghna are not three rivers for each country to think and work out a policy on. It is a single river system.

It is important to take a river system view of water issues rather than one country’s view. It is also important to start viewing trans-boundary issues not only as a way to sell out either side but as an avenue to explore and develop shared learning. One of the issues highlighted in the report is about how the fishing community in West Bengal learnt fishing methods in Bangladesh, which led to the increase of fish stock.

Trans-boundary Issues

The trans-boundary water issue has always been used by politicians to attack a ruling party or else, has been used as an election agenda. For Nepal, water is an important and controversial issue with India and it always feels cheated on past treaties that do not have any provision for amendment. For many in the government in India, Nepal as a source of energy and water does not even feature in its discourse. It is at the state and border level that the issue of water becomes important. Also in Nepal, we take our trans-boundary relationship on water with China as something for granted and going very well. We do not feel that there would be issues with China on water as our thinking is purely focused towards India.

Therefore, it becomes important that more discourse take place at the borders rather than between Delhi and Kathmandu. The better the people-to-people relationship at the border, the easier will it be in dealing with issues relating to water. When there is complete mistrust at the borders that the federal governments have ignored, the issue of water will continue to remain something that politicians can exploit. It is therefore imperative that there are more specific projects created that will bring together people along the border to resolve flooding issues or use water for irrigation.

Internalising Conservation

In the days to come, we will all be aware of the water shortages that the region will face, especially for agricultural usage. Therefore, it is important that issues relating to conservation are internalised. Farmers who get free electricity legally or illegally should start thinking twice on how much water they are using. Water conservation through rainwater harvesting and waste water treatment needs to begin, not as a slogan for another conference but in the real sense.

For someone who grew up in a town with acute water shortage, where we computed water consumption in litres, turning off taps has become a way of life, be it in the most abundant of places. The big change we need is in internalising our own attitude towards water and thinking twice about what we are eating, drinking and consuming through a ‘water lens’. Sure, money can buy water but only for a certain time.

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