The Baglihar Dam on the Chenab (photo credit:Reuters)

It’s an election year and India’s opposition party has begun setting its agenda on green issues. The National Democratic Alliance’s LK Advani yesterday pledged to make access to drinking water a fundamental right and water conservation a fundamental duty for all Indians. Moreover, key elements of Mr Advani’s campaign will be fighting terrorism and climate change, because the “destruction of environment” was another form of terrorism. Nevertheless, going beyond rhetoric and election soundbites, India needs to properly integrate its water resources and set up better regulatory mechanisms that monitor water use efficiency.

Water: the story so far

The question of water security in India is not new, nor is restricted to within India’s borders. But India’s exploding energy needs are pushing the need for water security to the fore. Water management is vital to maintaining India’s growth rate as well as one of India’s biggest obstacles. The government notes that “in order to fuel a sustained 8% annual growth […] basic capacities in the energy sector and related physical infrastructure such as rail, ports, road and water grow by factors of 3 to 7 times by 2031-2032.”

India’s water situation looks bleak. India’s industrial zones are located in water stressed zones. Poor water storage capacities and heavy subsidies given to the agricultural sector have resulted in excessive water wastage and over exploitation of ground water. Furthermore, India is still very dependent on the weather, melting glaciers and patchy monsoons spelling doom for the economy. Rampant urban growth has caused the sudden depletion of wetland areas in many parts: for example, of the 261 lakes in and around Bangalore city in 1961, only 34 remain.

Politicizing water

With such urgent water needs, it is no wonder that water has become politicised at every level – from the city to the state right up to the national and even international level.

Take, for example, the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Despite great untapped hydro-electric potential, J&K suffers from severe power shortages. Projects on Jammu and Kashmir’s primary rivers are restricted by the Indus Waters Treaty which split the rights to the Indus and its tributaries between India and Pakistan equitably.

Two days ago, a tender was awarded for the construction of the 330 MW Kishan Ganga Hydroelectric power project in which will be built on an Indian tributary (the Kishan Ganga) of the Jhelum River. Recalling Pakistan’s strong reservations on the Baglihar Dam project on the Indian side of the Chenab River in 2005 (the dispute went to the World Bank for neutral adjudication) and the Tulbul project which was abandoned in the 1980s due to Pakistan’s objections, India is pushing to complete its project before it falls prey to this political minefield. But this is where the dispute gets interesting. Pakistan has announced a similar project on the Pakistani side of the Jhelum because according to the treaty, the country that completes the project first will win the rights to the river. And so, despite costing 68% more than foreseen, India has pulled out all the stops to get the project finished first.

Nationally, the incumbent coalition is reluctant to implement a project meant to interlink India’s major rivers that was initiated by the opposition. Indian states are notorious for fighting over water rights (remember the Cauvery river water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that dragged on for over a decade?) forcing the central government to arbitrate settlements on a number of occasions. Most of the major metropolitan areas, are also increasingly facing acute water shortages. Mismanagement of resources, unbalanced growth and inequitable distribution, soaring demands and corruption are just a few reasons behind these recurring issues. Water is surely a political issue, but it keeps falling prey to unnecessary politicisation which results in the common man losing out.

Going beyond rhetoric

India needs to properly integrate its water resources and set up better regulatory mechanisms that monitor water use efficiency. To fully develop its hydropower capacities, it will have to resolve a number of issues: water rights, displacement of people due to water projects, environmental consequences of hydropower projects. Additionally, India will have to greatly increase its water storage capacities, keeping in mind the fact that although storage schemes may make economic sense, they are often politically volatile.

In terms of renewable energy alternatives such as ethanol or biodiesel, India will have to devise alternate methods of production that are not water intensive. Finally, although India has decided to set up a National Water Mission as part of its climate change initiative, water is essentially still a state issue and so states need to step up. Environmental audits need to be taken seriously. Only in states like Himachal Pradesh, where the environment is crucial to their very survival is a climate change policy being drawn out.

This is a big year for India: the national elections are coming up, various green energy summits are being hosted and the private sector is gearing up as well. We’ll just have to see if India’s water woes are addressed, or will they once again become a rarely kept election promise.

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