Water needs a multi-disciplinary approach

Nilanjan Ghosh/Jayanta Bandyopadhyay | Updated on May 04, 2018

Farmers’ anger The board must consider new ways of water governance   -  THE HINDU

The Cauvery Management Board must have not just engineers and agronomists but also experts from other fields

The Supreme Court of India in a landmark judgment on the contested Cauvery water allocation between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (TN), on February 16, 2018, reduced the allocation to the Cauvery Waters for TN by 14.75 TMC Ft, from the amount allocated by the Cauvery Water Tribunal (CWT) Award in 2007.

The clause is pretty clear for Karnataka: to use this additional water for the burgeoning city of Bengaluru. A deeper analysis reveals that this verdict is based on the principle of intersectoral allocation by making water move from the agricultural sector to the urban-industrial sector, rather than a reallocation among the States.

In our paper in Water Policy (2009), we argued that around 85 per cent of the Cauvery waters get used in irrigation, and there is reprehensible wastage of water in this sector. Therefore, though apparently the Supreme Court verdict seems to be following the principle of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, it recognises a bigger global phenomenon of intersectoral water conflicts at a basin-scale: agriculture versus urban-industrial water demand, rather than the inter-State vote-bank politics.

The Supreme Court has also asked the Centre to set up the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) (as prescribed in the Final Order of the Cauvery Water Tribunal or CWT in 2007), within 40 days of passage of the SC order. With the 40 days having lapsed, TN wants the Centre to take immediate actions on setting up the Board, while the Centre has asked for more time from the apex court.

Basin-scale organisation

The need for a basin-level organisation like CMB can never be overemphasised. A river basin organisation (RBO) to look after basin-scale water governance can be witnessed globally across many trans-boundary river basins. The levels of their successes have varied and there is generally no unique formula for their structure and activities.

Yet, there is one thing that has been followed in the cases of almost all recent RBOs: (a) there is an acknowledgement of multidimensionality of the basin system; (b) a team with both disciplinary competence and interdisciplinary understanding of critical issues of water governance in the respective basin is constituted from the governments and the stakeholder groups, so that bottom-up governance structure and a participatory democratic approach can be followed.

Structure of the CMB

When one reads the recommended composition of the CMB, as stated in the CWT Award of 2007, the above two elements seem to be missing. The Award talks of having a whole time Chairman who should be an Irrigation Engineer of the rank of Chief Engineer. The choice of two members of the CMB needs to be made from the subject of Engineering and Agronomy, nominated from the respective ministries, namely, water resources, and agriculture.

In the same vein, there is provision of two representatives of the Central Government who shall be of the rank “… of Chief Engineer/Commissioner to be nominated by the Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Agriculture respectively. They shall be part time Members of the Board”.

Even the State representatives from Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Union Territory of Pondicherry in the Board are proposed to be “… Irrigation Engineer of the rank of Chief Engineer”. The Secretary of the Board needs to be “… an Irrigation Engineer not belonging to any party State, and not below the rank of a Director/Superintending Engineer”. While the entire Board composition, as envisaged in the Award, has been confined to engineers and agronomists, with a small allusion of a representative of India Meteorological Department (IMD) in the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (a Committee to be constituted by the Board), one gets an idea that the problem of Cauvery governance can be resolved by traditional engineering and agricultural solutions only.

This is clearly in contravention with global thinking of an integrated approach to the governance of river basins that recognises the multidimensionality of water in terms of its social, political and ecological importance. The Tribunal, even in its allocation award, has missed out on the critical ecosystem perspective of the basin, and has somehow inflicted the award with a narrow, reductionist engineering-driven vision that we, in our previous writings, have termed as “arithmetic hydrology”.

The arithmetic by way of which this 50 per cent dependability of water is arrived at is based on past precedence of estimates conducted by engineers like KL Rao. The CWT seemed to be oblivious to the challenges by possible impacts of global warming and climate change that can result in significant variation in the flow and availability of water.

That award reserved the “quantity … for environmental protection” and “quantity determined for inevitable escapages to the sea” as 10 TMC Ft and 4 TMC Ft respectively, none of which are supported by any scientific assessment of the ecosystem-based water usages in the basin.

They are merely engineering solutions merely looking at economic use of water and treating it as a stock of resource to be stored and used for human convenience without any recognition of the impacts on the basin ecosystem.

This reductionist thinking has aggravated the conflict to the extent that exists today. A CMB consisting of engineers and agronomists will merely follow the same thinking that definitely will not be conducive for sustainable basin governance. Neither will such a team be equipped to address the complex future challenges!

On the other hand, the entire idea of looking at the basin as a complex combination of WEBS (water, energy, biodiversity, and sediment) by acknowledging the inextricable linkages with ecosystems and livelihoods is essentially the hallmark of the new emerging ways of water governance.

The 2016 reports from the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, namely, Draft National Water Framework Bill 2016, and A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms, both prepared under the chairmanship of Mihir Shah, adequately acknowledge the importance of a multi-disciplinary framework for water.

Therefore, substantial caution and more detailed thinking have to go with setting up of the CMB. There needs to be a multi-disciplinary approach of the CMB with expertise from various disciplines, given the complexity that has to be dealt with and considering the myriad of stakeholders.

It is imperative that a transdisciplinary knowledge base of rivers is evolved by combining fluvial geomorphology, engineering, hydrology, hydro-geology, ecological sciences, climate sciences, tectonic sciences, ecological economics, law, political sciences, sociology, social anthropology, humanities and culture, institutional theory etc. through a multi-disciplinary team. Again, the top-down approach proposed by the CWT will be exclusionary.

It needs to include a great many more stakeholders at various levels including those for the ecosystems so as to follow a bottom-up approach, as can be witnessed in the case of the Mekong River Commission. The opportunity of creating a new RBO may be better used with a widening of the composition as argued above.

Ghosh is Senior Fellow at ORF Kolkata & Senior Economic Adviser at WWF-India. Bandyopadhyay is Distinguished Fellow at ORF Kolkata.

Published on May 04, 2018

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