Special Address by Dr. Shashi Tharoor
Hon’ble Minister of State for Human Resource Development
New Delhi, 28th October, 2013
Hon’ble President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Shri Harish Rawat, Hon’ble Minister for Water Resources, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Dr. Shri Prakash, excellencies, delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to be invited to share my thoughts on a matter so vital to the very existence of humanity. While the scientific significance of water as the basis of all life, human or otherwise, has been fully understood only recently, in practical terms the story of civilization is in many ways the story of our ever sophisticated attempts to harness the potential of water. After all, as W.H. Auden wrote: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
As one of the newest but the most predominant inhabitants of this planet, we have successfully controlled many aspects of nature and our limited success in doing so has given us a limitless sense of complacency about the availability of water.
Water fuels culture and religion. It has been the driving force behind the destiny of civilisations, whether their ascendance to greatness or their eventual fall into oblivion. Every aspect of governance, from external affairs to economic sustenance to political relationships and social systems, have their essential foundations in water and how it is used.
In the world today there are few sources of water which have not been tampered with by us. The natural abundance of water combined with success in controlling it has given industrial and agricultural advantage to countries, and given them a chance to pursue regional and global domination. Countries without water have been vulnerable to suffering and exploitation.
Indeed, water scarcity is strongly correlated with epidemic disease, destabilising violence, and corruption. Societies whose populations do not have access to clean water and sanitation, in time suffer social unrest. Water is beginning to rival oil as a vital contested resource and it is not idle speculation when many experts predict that the next big war amongst nations could well be for water. This is why, instilling an awareness of the importance of water early in our children’s education is so important.
Closer to home, water scarcity is a ubiquitous fact of life in India. Our water stressed regions are among the world’s most densely populated. With 14 of the 20 major river basins severely stressed, India stands on the brink of a water famine. Ironically some of our coastal communities are amongst the worst affected: they live with the sea but find no ground water to consume. The poet Coleridge, who wrote “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” could have been thinking of parts of my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram.
The primary cause of water stress in India is the growing population. In all fairness, our management of existing water resources has been rather disastrous too. Pollution into natural water sources has reached epidemic levels, thus making many sources of water unfit for all uses—agricultural and domestic. This catalogue of incompetence and ignorance is endless. Infrastructure has not been upgraded which leads to loss of water in distribution cycles, agricultural methods are outdated which ensures water is wasted, and alternative water resource management like rainwater harvesting or storm-water gathering has not been seriously encouraged or conscientiously pursued. Even free electricity to farmers ensures water is harnessed unsustainably without regulation. Climate change will disrupt seasonal rains and bring in more droughts and floods. Water shortage could give rise to food grain shortages, a rise in prices of essential commodities, increases in malnutrition and hunger, and eventually to a rise in water mafias, violent conflicts and riots.
The man-made crisis can be best seen in the context of water supplies in cities, where water planning has not been a part of urban planning, and urbanisation has created a man-made water crisis.
Available ground water is exploited in an unplanned and unregulated way resulting in environmental degradation. Scarcity of water gives rise to an imbalance in demand and supply which in effect gives rise to a population of winners and losers, haves and have not’s. This gives rise to ineffective service, leading to ground water pollution and depletion and finally lowering the water table, in many cases permanently. In essence water scarcity is a man-made crisis which arises either out of over-extraction or contamination.
Water is not treated as an economic good in India, a mindset the National Water Policy of 2012 seeks to change. The National Water Policy is a step in the right direction for it looks at the ecological, climate change and conservational perspectives. Its focus on communities staking a claim to their resources and using climate resilient technologies is an innovative thought. The setting up of a Water Dispute Tribunal is also important to prevent conflicts arising over water.
Equitable water management should be seen as a goal of our society and our educational system should start inculcating early an awareness of water problems in our children. Water in its many dimensions shapes the outlook of the society one lives in. Every social group must be enabled to voice their opinions, and this in turn must translate to the benefits of water management being distributed efficiently with equity, while keeping in mind the many factors that hurt water management: discrimination, corruption, power and lack of information.
Benjamin Franklin said “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”. Before such a scenario takes place, I hope we rise to the challenge from our classrooms to our panchayats, create better regulatory systems when distributing water, and bridge the gap between the water haves and have-nots. This India Water Forum is a vital step in this direction. Together, let us always be able to satisfy our national thirst for water.
Thank you, and Jai Hind!