Water is an economic, social and environmental resource. Over the past two decades, there has been a shift in the way we look at the water resources. From a mere local issue in the mid-20th century, water problems have attained a dimension from a trans-boundary regional problem to that of global concern. Today, there is a growing realisation that water is central to many other challenges that we are facing today. It has a direct link with poverty alleviation, regional development, gender issues, health, food, energy and environment, conflicts and geo-political equations.
Water issues have spatio-temporal scale that can attain different character in various geographical regions, which is getting increasingly adverse due to climate change. No wonder the United Nations General Assembly recognised water as an ‘instrument of peace’ in the year 2013 and appealed for cooperation through an interdisciplinary approach bringing in cultural, educational and scientific factors, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional and economic dimensions. Since then, water is in the agenda of nearly all development organisations’ activities, multi-lateral and bi-lateral funding organisations’ charters and a priority for national governments.
The Government of India initiated a number of flagship programmes related to water like Namami Gange, Swachh Bharat Mission and the inter-linking of rivers among other such initiatives. It is also making serious efforts to improve relations with its neighbouring countries to iron out contentious water sharing issues and support development activities including completion of stalled hydro-electric projects. This clearly reflects large volume of activities and funding available in the sector through several central and state government ministries and departments. The public-private partnership model, huge Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding and a push towards international cooperation for joint activities in the water sector, both in terms of expertise sharing and monetary support, will fuel serious activities on water resources for many decades. These activities will renew impetus on social, economic, regulatory, legal dimensions of the issue to guide policies in water sector.
Expanded to mainstreamUntil a few years ago, interest in water issues was thought to be the domain of ‘environmentalists’ and governments. Today, this realm has expanded to include mainstream segments such as consumers, financiers, managers and corporate houses. Several factors have facilitated this shift. The most basic one is the rising frequency and intensity of water problems, catalysed by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the recent years. A recent update by Environmental Justice Atlas, an online interactive portal that maps exemplary cases of peoples’ resistance against climate change and environment degradation, has reported that India tops a list of 11 countries in ecological conflicts and environmental injustice. Conflicts related to ‘water management’ account for most cases with industrial units appropriating water sources.
These have brought into focus not only the negative health impacts on human beings and the natural habitat, but also the spectra of resource scarcity, accompanying water resource degradation. As a consequence to this, there is a growing sensitivity towards water problems, resulting in judicial activism and frequent public interest litigation against governments and corporate bodies. Water mismanagement has the potential to not only hurt corporate reputation, but also disrupt business operations in a major way. Therefore, business collaborators, suppliers, consumers, and distributors consider water as a component of business sustainability and industries are proactive in engaging experts in order to reduce water footprints of their activities and products.
Specialised approachWater skills available in India have mainly come from institutions offering civil engineering and allied postgraduate programmes where students are trained to assume that water infrastructure development alone can address nearly all water issues. Few intuitions offer specialised programmes related to economic and social aspects of water challenges. This pool of skilled force though important, but is not sufficient to meet the aspirations of today’s employers who need water professionals that have collective skill sets — technology orientation, scientific temper, legal, economic and social perspectives so that they can tackle the water related challenges in a holistic manner.
India needs water professionals who have a basic degree in disciplines like science, engineering and urban planning, and have gone through an interdisciplinary post-graduate programme to apply their knowledge in solution space such as impact assessment through use of mathematical modeling, and infrastructure planning with due consideration of economics, social and legal perspectives, agriculture and urban water demand management. This knowledge can then be used to optimise and support a water agenda and champion regional water to promote water cooperation.
(the author is professor and head, department of regional water studies, TERI University)