December 2004 | Chirag Kasbekar

Water way to go

The water warriors of the Tata Water Policy Research Programme, a partnership involving the International Water Management Institute and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, are fighting to avert a water catastrophe in India

Imagine the prospect: within 20 years large parts of India could be facing Ethiopia-like famine conditions — every year. This is no wild imagining. Neither is it a despondent declaration by a doomsday soothsayer. On the contrary, it is a scenario based on rigorous research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

"India is in the throes of a major water crisis and thecountry seems least prepared to meet it," contends Dr Tushaar Shah, principal scientist of IMWI's South Asia programme and leader of its global groundwater management initiative. IWMI's research predicts that a large chunk of India could by 2025 face the same plight — absolute water scarcity — as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa do now.

Set up in 1985 by the Ford Foundation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, IWMI is one of 16 members of Future Harvest, a global group of agricultural, environmental and scientific research centres. It is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which has representatives from 58 governments, private foundations and international and regional organisations. IWMI uses multidisciplinary water-management research to help developing countries find sustainable ways to manage their water and land resources, reduce poverty and restrict the abuse of nature.

The problem IWMI and others are trying to solve in India has already assumed serious proportions. On the one hand, nearly one-third of the country is drought-prone and, on the other, a quarter faces regular flooding. Meanwhile, the mismatch of water resources has led to conflicts between states (the fight between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for the Cauvery waters is an example).

India is one of the most groundwater-dependent countries in the world and government-subsidised overuse is leading to a rapid depletion of this highly precious resource. More than 70 per cent of rural users and 30-35 per cent of urban dwellers pump out their own water from tube wells, without much regulation. Moreover, serious contamination of groundwater is making it hazardous to drink.

Dr Shah believes that a water calamity can be averted. "Supply can meet demand, but only with effective management," he says. Dr Shah points out that in a poor country like ours, conservation of resources means something completely different from what it means for Americans and Europeans. It has to go hand-in-hand with poverty reduction and livelihood protection.

How good is India's water management policy? "We don't really have a water policy," says Dr Shah, "and the little that we do is not based on a pragmatic assessment of our water economy." Water policy can't be left to the generalist bureaucrat, nor should it be based on dogma or narrow political considerations, he feels. It needs a scientific understanding of the underlying issues, a bridge between science and policy-making.

The Sir Ratan Tata Trust, through the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Programme (ITP), is helping build such a bridge. Set up in March 2000, the alliance's main mission is to support important research in water resources management and build a national policy debate around this research.

"IWMI is the global leader in water-sector research," says Arun Pandhi of the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. "Partnering it makes eminent sense." The Trust agreed to provide Rs 4.5 crore over the first five years of the programme and will consider extending the arrangement for a further five years based on the results of the first phase. IWMI is matching the amount being given by the Trust.

Having understood the importance of water utilisation and conservation, the Trust wanted to develop an integrated water-sector funding strategy. In the mid-1990s it asked Dr Shah to help. "I wrote a concept note on water management and the Trust reacted warmly," says Dr Shah. "Since IWMI also believes in partnerships, we decided to get together. We made a presentation to the Trust and, within a month, I had already set up an office in Anand, Gujarat, and the IWMI Tata Water Policy programme was up and running."

A significant body of knowledge has already been developed in the four years of the programme's existence, including about 300 reports and journal publications. ITP's work has shown that some water-sector reform models popular with global lending agencies can be quite inappropriate for Indian conditions.

The annual ITP 'partners' meet', in which research done by researchers and collaborators in the year is discussed, has become an important event in the field of water management in India, attracting academics, non-government organisations (NGOs), governmental and donor agencies, and media.

ITP is proud of its success in creating awareness about the issue and influencing mindsets, especially among government officials. The programme's big success stories have been its large-scale action-research initiatives in central India and north Gujarat, both of which have received a further dose of funding from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.

ITP's 'central India initiative' (CInI), set up in 2002, is premised on the belief that one of the reasons why the tribal communities of this region, which constitute 70 per cent of the country's total tribal population, continue to suffer from hunger and poverty despite having good rainfall is that government initiatives have focused on health, education and the public distribution system, rather than on water management and the development of agriculture.

"Water management can not only save the natural resources of the region from degradation, but can also form the basis of an overall development strategy for the area," says Shilp Verma, one of the consultants handling the programme. For example, if the tribal communities of this resource rich but infrastructure poor part of India are encouraged to give up their migratory lifestyles and take up settled agriculture through water control initiatives, it would be much easier to implement health, education and other programmes. Besides, they would have a greater stake in preserving natural resources.

To test these strategies, ITP works with a variety of NGOs who share their approach. Eventually, the NGOs implement the strategies with the help of the Trust. Pleased with the success of the initiative, the Trust has decided to make CInI a central part of its water-sector strategy and has devoted more funds to it.

ITP's endeavours in north Gujarat are of a different hue. Before 1960 Indian farmers pumped less than 1 billion cubic metres of groundwater annually. Today they pump more than 200 billion cubic metres every year — more than any other country in the world. This has led to a rapid depletion of water tables across India. A serious crisis looms for a large proportion of India's farmers; and the North Gujarat region has the dubious distinction of emerging as one of the world's best known groundwater basket cases.

To find a way out of this conundrum ITP decided to institute an action-cum-research programme in north Gujarat. The North Gujarat Sustainable Groundwater Initiative (NGI), as it is known, has worked with farmer organisations and NGOs, with additional support from the Trust, to test out a variety of water-saving technologies and methods in over 30 villages across the region.

"We have achieved more than we expected," says M. Dinesh Kumar, the director of the project. "People's attitudes have changed tremendously. Their misconceptions about water-saving technologies have been cleared and they readily adopt water-saving, wealth-creating practices. It's only a matter of time before farmers in other areas with similar conditions also take up these methods."

An external review commissioned by IWMI and SRTT, and conducted by a team of three internationally renowned experts, has given the work done by ITP its full endorsement and this has given the programme renewed confidence to move on to other projects, including a thorough, unbiased evaluation of the Indian government's controversial national river-linking plan.

"Within IWMI and the CGIAR, ITP is widely viewed as an innovative model for fostering meaningful collaboration between international and national institutions, particularly in the private sector," says Dr Shah, who was given the best scientist award for 2003 by CGIAR. "It's not only been an excellent and highly productive partnership with the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, but personally a very enjoyable one."

Though the present arrangement will end in December 2005, both partners are now working on ways to build on this success. There's a mountain yet to climb before India's looming water catastrophe is averted.