India’s Looming Water Crisis

The growing water shortages carry economic risks that are as damaging as political corruption.

Brahma Chellaney, The Economic Times, March 2, 2012

Water is the most critical of all natural resources on which modern economies depend. Water scarcity and rapid economic advance cannot go hand-in-hand. Yet, with its per capita water availability falling to 1,582 cubic metres per year, India has become water-stressed.

In 1960, India signed a treaty indefinitely setting aside 80% of the Indus-system waters for downstream Pakistan — the most generous water-sharing pact thus far in modern world history. Its 1996 Ganges treaty with Bangladesh guarantees minimum cross-border flows in the dry season — a new principle in international water law. In fact, the treaty almost equally divides the downstream Ganges flows between the two countries. And now India is under pressure to reserve about half of the Teesta River waters for Bangladesh in what will be the world’s first water-sharing treaty of the 21st century. Existing water-sharing treaties elsewhere in the world, by contrast, do not come anywhere close to allocating half of all waters to the downstream state.

India, however, is downriver to China and, with about a dozen important rivers flowing in from the Tibetan Himalayan region, it gets almost one-third of all its yearly water supplies from Tibet, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization figures. Although a number of nations stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam receive waters from the Tibetan Plateau, India’s direct dependency on Tibetan waters is greater than any other country’s. But Beijing, far from wanting to emulate India’s Indus-style water munificence, rejects the very concept of water sharing and is building large dams on rivers flowing to other nations, with little regard for downriver interests. An extensive Chinese water infrastructure in Tibet will have a serious impact on India.

India thus faces difficult choices on water. It must manage its water resources wisely, including by building greater storage capacity, improving quality, and raising water efficiency and productivity levels.

Its ambitious, Vajpayee-era National River Linking Programme — which has remained on paper for the last 10 years — is designed to help connect 37 Himalayan and peninsular rivers in a pan-Indian water grid to reduce water shortages. Publicly ridiculed by Rahul Gandhi as a “disastrous idea,” it has now been ordered to be implemented by the Supreme Court in “a time-bound manner.” Will that really happen? The experience on the Supreme Court-overseen Narmada project doesn’t leave much room for optimism.

The Supreme Court indeed is burdened by multiple water disputes. With water increasingly at the centre of inter-provincial feuds, the Court has sought to keep peace between warring states. It has struggled for years to resolve water wrangles, only to find the parties returning to litigate again on new grounds.

Plans for large water projects usually run into stiff opposition from influential NGOs. Such is the power of these organizations to organize grassroots protests that it has now become virtually impossible to build a large dam, blighting the promise of hydropower. Proof of this was New Delhi’s 2010 decision to abandon three dam projects on River Bhagirathi, including one project midway, which resulted in the loss of several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money.

The largest dam India has built since independence is the 2,000 MW Tehri, which pales in comparison to the giant Chinese projects, such as the 18,300 MW Three Gorges Dam and the latest dam on the Mekong — the Xiaowan, taller than the Eiffel Tower. China’s proposed Metog (Motuo) Dam, to be built almost on the disputed border with India, is to produce 38,000 MW of power.

At a time when industrial and food production demands are putting increasing pressure on local water resources, NGOs have led grassroots protests also against the setting up of water-intensive industries, delaying the plans of giant corporations like ArcelorMittal and Posco, for example. Add to the picture India’s labyrinthine political and bureaucratic processes, which are slow-moving and bendable to public pressures, however contrived.

In this light, the National River Linking Programme looks like a plan of the dream world: A colossal water grid to handle 178 billion cubic meters of inter-basin water transfers a year through the construction of 12,500 kilometres of new canals, generating 34 GW of hydropower, creating 35 million hectares of additional irrigated land, and opening extended navigation networks. This is the kind of programme that only a large, ruthless autocracy like China can launch and implement.

To be sure, it was the Supreme Court that prodded the government in 2002 to embark on this water-grid programme. It is also true that partisan politics has been at play, with the UPA government loath to endorse its predecessor’s programme. It told Parliament in 2009 that the $120-billion programme — centred on the separate linking of the Himalayan and peninsular rivers — is cost-prohibitive.

Yet it has not tried to put forward a cost-effective alternative to a programme that the National Water Development Agency and the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development vouch is essential to stem droughts and floods and to double India’s annual grain production to more than 450 million tons to meet the demands of increasing prosperity and a growing population. Without expanding its irrigated land and adopting new plant varieties and farming techniques, India is likely to become a net food importer in the coming years — a development that will roil the already-tight international food markets.

With the water situation worsening, the Supreme Court has rightly decided to intercede. But given that India has struggled for decades to complete the Narmada project — less than 12½ times the hydropower capacity of China’s Three Gorges project — it is an open question whether the grand river-linking plans will be realized.

More fundamentally, the growing water shortages threaten to slow economic growth and fuel social tensions, unless the government fixes its disjointed policy approach and develops a long-term vision on managing water resources. Water must be treated as a key strategic issue.

(c) The Economic Times, 2012.