Water, Power and People

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Water, Power and People

1 January 1997 – 1 January 1997 |  Colombo, Sri Lanka



A South Asian Manifesto on the Politics and Knowledge of Water[1]

By Imtiaz Ahmed, Ajaya Dixit, Ashis Nandy



The last fifty years of water management in South Asia has been the story of an unfolding disaster. Throughout the region, the water and energy requirements of cities and villages have confronted decline in the quality and quantity of water. These years have made societies in the region more vulnerable to environmental degradation and jeopardised the future inter-national relations and economic well being of each of the countries in the region. Particularly, unthinking attempts to mechanically bolster supply have almost invariably ignored existing scientific and social knowledge, and ended up by being a disgrace to the principles of good governance. Popular and journalistic writings on the science and politics of water have not helped matters, for they have endorsed perceptions that go against both the science of hydrology and the canons of ecological and economic rationality.

We make the following propositions with full responsibility, based on present scientific and social knowledge. We believe that once the shibboleths of the past are shed, it may be possible to at least think about the restructuring of the political economy of water in South Asia.


  1. Water and Governance


Water scarcity in South Asia is the result of abuse and wastage of water and general mis-management of natural resources sanctioned by present styles of governance in the region. While human and ecological needs for water call for accountability at every level of the state, the tendency in South Asia has been to sacrifice good science for motivated management that ensures subsidised and copious access to water to those already privileged. It is a self-perpetuating cycle: the wealthy benefit more than the poor from government policies and can more easily bend rules not only to misuse or waste water, but also to take water further away from both the most needy sections of the population and the environment.

Half a century of South Asia’s construction-led water development has failed to address the basic sources of the suffering of the people. It has not provided wholesome drinking water to rural, urban and sub-urban areas. On the contrary, misplaced development priorities have ignored the diverse social contexts of water to damage the foundations of social and community life. Farmers, artisans and others in rural areas have been forced to migrate to over-crowded cities without adequate infrastructure, employment, housing and sanitation, for they have been displaced from lands that can no longer sustain them. In the meanwhile, overcrowded cities, generating organic wastes, add to the level of pollution and further strain the supply of fresh water.


  1. Science, Uncertainty and Risks


Unlike popular writers on the subject, good scientists know that science and technology alone cannot explain the complex, interactive processes shaping the relation-ships among water, nature and human intervention. Particularly, the natural science-led approach to water, while it tells much about the physical and chemical processes involved in harnessing or developing water resources for human use, cannot explain the social contents of water management or the institutional responses needed for just and equitable water supply. Most water management takes place at the level of the individual, the household and the community. At that level, motivations to act or reluctance to change are formed, information is created and interpreted, and shared understanding as a basis for action develop.

On the other hand, by itself, a social or political approach to water is also insufficient. Purely social approaches to water are not informed by global concerns and cannot easily rise above crass empiricism. The need is to inform and empower the systems of water use at the grass-roots with better science, including traditional sciences; and to sensitise the science of water management to social realities.

The natural sciences concentrate on large-scale alteration of the volume, timing, location or quality of water available in a region. Yet, South Asia’s hydrology is inherently and associated with high uncertainty regarding the processes of precipitation, water flow and sedimentation. The high seismicity in the region adds to the complexity and aggravates risks. Such uncertainty is exacerbated by the weak institutional linkages and partisan politics within which the data on water re-sources are organised, interpreted and used. These data have now become more discrete than ever and can hardly qualify as information, let alone knowledge, though they are often vended as wisdom.

Decisions on massive water development projects are often modelled on water regimes developed in other regions and on limited or parochial data base. In the extreme climatic variations in South Asia, these models often do not work, particularly in the mountainous regions where several storage projects have been planned in recent years. Such borrowed models are even more sterile when they recommend the use of surplus monsoon water in lean periods, to reportedly ensure the future supply of fresh water and energy to the region. Due to high sedimentation rates, however, all such storage facilities gets exhausted much faster than is usually assumed. This has already happened in the case of a number of high dams and multipurpose projects. Most cost calculations for such projects have turned out to be useless, misleading dishonest underestimates. Given the present plans, access to whole-some water will remain a mirage for the majority.


  1. The Hubris of Modern Technology and Global Capital


Decision-makers are incapable of thinking of water management except in terms of supply augmentation through technical interventions. New and sophisticated technologies do allow control over the movement of natural water to meet the growing demands for it, but it can-not separate water from society. Water use continues to take place within existing asymmetry of wealth, knowledge and information, conflict and struggle for power. Global capital, too, seeks quick returns, not bottom-up initiatives necessary for self-reliant change. The centralised culture of the institutions controlled by such capital is neither equitable nor benign. It is actually against participatory, democratic decision-making. The hubris of technology and global capital, ignorant of the contradictions inherent in their approach, guides the large water resource projects and drives a wedge between the investors and the mass of users dependent on water resources.


V Dams and Profitability


While the decision-makers, media and modern intellectuals have remained dependent on the West in their orientation to water, ironically, the West has shown greater ingenuity in harnessing creative ideas and practices. Thanks to the colonial legacy, the South Asian elite continues to borrow ideas and practices from a bygone era of the West. Thus, when mega-dams in the West are increasingly being criticised for being economically unsound, socially harmful and environmentally hazardous, in South Asia they are seen as symbols of development. South Asian schools, colleges and universities remain some of the last champions of the cause of mega-dams in the world.

For example, most large dams of the region are inspired by projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the United States and their construction have been, virtually in all cases, totally uninformed by detailed and serious study of local conditions, communities, surviving traditional water management systems, local knowledge and practices. The legitimacy of projects like TVA has diminished dramatically in the West and they are now considered extravagant mistakes. This awareness has not, however, seeped into South Asian public discourse. Uninformed policy makers, greedy contractors, self-serving and inept politicians have been taking advantage of this gap in knowledge to pursue their self interest through the myth that large dams are the only means of ensuring water security.

This has further strengthened the links between the unconditionally pro-dam attitudes of the elite, a sizeable section of the media, and the media-exposed public on the one hand, and those who stand to gain from its implementation on the other – local and foreign contractors, experts and minions of the state. Any attempt to promote sustainable alternatives for meeting water and energy needs must acknowledge this relationship between knowledge production and knowledge diffusion, and take into account the vested interests of politicians, bureaucrats, construction companies, academics and technocrats. The consistent failures of the dam builders to ensure the proper relief and rehabilitation of those ousted from their lands and vocations are, therefore, not an accidental by-product of modern water management principles but one of the necessary corollaries.


  1. Water and Equity


Water development in contemporary South Asia remains a majoritarian venture, organised and implemented largely at the expense of the needs and welfare of minority social groups, particularly the indigenous people. This is particularly true of dams, canals and reservoirs. Such projects displace people from their ancestral lands, with insufficient or no compensation. When they do receive some financial compensation, they are unable-especially if they are not a part of the monetised sector of the economy-to use the money meaningfully. Often such compensation further impoverishes the community by encouraging alcoholism, gambling, extravagant consumption and entry of land sharks into the communities. Such traumata may lead to increased frequency of various forms of personality disorders, even higher rates of suicides. Some victims react to such social and cultural disruptions destructively; they begin to build new identities. Some even embrace extremism and violence.

Historically, women in South Asia have played a critical role in water conservation. As water-bearers, women had specialised knowledge of conservation, purification and treatment of water. The role of South Asian women in water conservation and water management has, however, shrunk with modernisation. Indeed, development has brought the subject-matter of water management under the hegemony of “masculine reductionist s science,” as one scholar-activist calls the pathology, and helped displace women from water conservation and water management. This displacement, and the silence and powerlessness it has enforced on women, has distorted the basic configuration of the cultures in this part of the world and impoverished them.


VII. Water Insecurity and the Costs of Water


Insecurity about water has links with environmental insecurity and social uprooting. Growing population, deforestation, overgrazing, conventional developmental economics and unsustainable agronomy-all contribute to the water scarcity that today plagues South Asia. For instance, most chemical fertilisers not only require enormous amounts of water to be effective, they also contaminate water sources, making water even more scarce. The use of such fertilisers has now become routine in South Asia, given the fascination for the high-yielding varieties of crops. Closely related is the issue of land security, constantly threatened by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. One researcher has shown that in the past about 30,000 rice varieties were cultivated by South Asian farmers. Today, thanks to the modern technique and the desire for uniformity, only about 15 varieties are produced. Together, water and land insecurities underwrite food and environmental insecurities and destitution.

The situation is worsened by the rapidly growing cost of supplying water. Not only have the poor no easy access to safe water systems, they also lose their traditional water management skills and local institutions oriented to such management; they even lose access to water commons. For instance, water pumps, usually set up with the aid of official agencies at subsidized rates, are frequently cornered by the village elite, who then sell water to poor farmers at exorbitant prices. The cost the poor pay is not merely economic; they are also the worst sufferers of water-borne diseases, often spread by mindless over-intervention in natural water systems. This over-burdens the already meagre health budgets of South Asian states.


VIII. Decentralising Water Management


Decisions in water management are usually state-centric rather than community centric. Centralisation of water management and water development, while successful in implementing large-scale, capital-intensive irrigation and hydro-electric projects, has led to bureaucratic neglect of local needs. Often funded by international donors through government agencies, such centralised water systems are hostile to local initiatives in matters of water crisis and water security. Such centralisation plays into the hands of those who are constantly trying to convert water into a national security issue. Consequently, decisions about water are dissociated from its actual uses. Those making such decisions begin to suffer from oversimplification, lack of transparency, and absence of accountability.

Because the resources themselves are naturally decentralised, water management and water development must be brought under the control of local government and monitored by the civil society. Devolution of political power for decentralised management is bound to trigger new, socially creative forces, including greater local participation and enter-prises.


  1. Denationalising Water


The South Asian states have nationalized their water, particularly their rivers and seas. They consider the water within their boundaries as “state property,” even though such water remains under the jurisdiction of a national state only temporarily (like the “air” around us, which is yet to get “nationalised”)! Such nationalisation, apart from producing inter-state conflicts, trivialises the water needs of the people. It also perpetuates the propensity for rent seeking, as can be seen in eastern India in the case of the Ganges, parts of which have been leased out to a new species of “water lords.”

Also, in their eagerness to safeguard the water under their control, to the point of turning water into a national security issue, the states ignore exactly those for whom the water is supposedly being protected. They place more emphasis on the techniques of protection (on absurd secrecy and deployment of security forces, for instance) than on the water being protected and the people using it! This occasionally lead to bizarre developments. While people hanker for water, standing in queues for hours or travelling miles to fetch it, the states keep quantifying and debating their water needs. For instance, whether the Farakka barrage has harmed Bangladesh or not, the fact that it has meant devastation for many communities in Eastern India, particularly Bihar and West Bengal, is one of the better kept secrets of the Indian state.

In South Asia, large dams particularly have become symbols of a nation’s maturity and virility, and a major instrument for their “national development”. The status of such dams have not diminished an iota in policy-making circles; on the contrary, any criticism of mega-dams, even those that stress the welfare of future generations, are seen as an attack on the nation, its security and its chosen path to modernisation. That is why the productive capacity and utility of a dam in the region are measured less in terms of environmental, economic, cultural costs and benefits, and more in terms of measures such as size, investment, financial outlay, height and the majesty of its conceptualisation. So effective is the propaganda unleashed in the name of national development that a sizeable section of the common citizens-who other-wise would not trust politicians, bureaucrats and contractors in matters of money-places its total faith in them when it comes to water development.

No wonder, therefore, that there has been no genuine overall social and economic audit of the past water development initiatives in South Asia. Even India which has built roughly 1500 large dams has no comprehensive audit of dams, not even of its prestige ventures like the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and the Bhakra-Nangal. Nor have even ordinary, commonsensical, basic questions about these dams been raised, except by environmentalists. For instance, there is no official explanation why, if the DVC was so successful, some of its projected dams were not built, or why a huge proportion of electricity generated by the corporation is now thermal, not hydro-electric, in contrast to the claims of the project plans.

Nationalisation of water has also led to dishonest, contradictory positions even in the movements resisting large dams. Many who question the utility of large dams in neighbouring countries (such as the Farakka barrage) are perfectly willing to support similar ventures in their own country (such as the Kaptai project) and those who question such initiatives in their country, keep quiet when they are promoted in the neighbouring countries.

Denationalising water is to free water from the power of the national state and the culture of the state.


  1. Rivers Rights


Right of the rivers must be codified and guaranteed by the state and the people. Such “rights” have already been codified for oceans and seas. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is now the “general duty” of all coastal states to protect and preserve the resources and the riches of the oceans and seas, not simply for the consumption of future generations but for the reproduction of human life itself. River rights can be enacted with similar goals in mind.

In recent times, huge amounts of human and industrial waste are dumped in rivers daily. The polluted rivers not merely spread water-borne diseases, but also raise the cost of treatment of drinking-water. According to one estimate, 114 Indian cities, of at least 50,000 people each, dump raw sewage into the Ganga. The same is true for rivers running through Kathmandu, Dhaka or many other South Asian cities. This is an attack on a civilisation de-fined by its great rivers, where millions of people consider the rivers “holy” and worship them. Polluted rivers not only spread water-borne diseases, but also raise the cost of treating drinking water.

Rivers also have their rights, including the right to be relatively pollution free, to be a safe habitat for riverine forms of life and, within limits, to flow freely.  Dams and sewer out-lets into rivers interfere with these rights. Large dams and barrages permit the state to restrict and encroach upon the customary rights and practices of local or indigenous peoples and riverine forms of lives. While interference with rivers has contributed to modernisation, bringing electricity and irrigation facilities to a wider section of people, such diversion of water from its natural course has often led to disasters, their magnitude determined by the scale of interference. For example, while large-scale surface irrigation has worsened the problems of water-logging and soil salinity, unregulated withdrawal of water by dams located upstream has dried up downstream beds of several rivers. In places, this has meant an attack on the economic and other life-support systems of the people, in turn leading to the creation of environmental refugees.


  1. Towards an Integrative Vision


Till now, the approach to water management and water development has been fragmentary. Not only has it dealt with sea, river and groundwater separately, it has been “land-centric”. Water management, we believe, should centre around water; it must be based on the recognition of the wholeness of water and its intrinsic function in nature. A comprehensive view also demands critical interventions in the curricula at all levels of education. The principal challenge is, therefore, to integrate the global and the local, to alter the structure and nature of current decision-making models, and the educational context within which they are generated, not only to accommodate a plurality of views, but also to generate options that would reflect the larger reality of water in nature and human society. The transition towards a more secure future for water begins with participatory, consensus-seeking, democratic, accountable governance.

We write this declaration in the hope that it will help free younger generations of South Asians from the stereotypes and clichés of the past and give them more confidence in envisioning the future relations among water, power and people in a less encumbered fashion.


[1] Imtiaz Ahmed, Ajaya Dixit and Ashis Nandy, Water, Power and People: A South Asian Manifesto on the Politics and Knowledge of Water (Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies 1997).


Download the Full Text in PDF Version www.rcss.org/admin/fckImages/SAManifesto on water.pdf


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