ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Bank Comes Full Circle

aquifer associations to monitor their The Bank Comes Full Circle India

the decision-support systems which enable aquifer associations to monitor their

The Bank Comes Full Circle

resource, and clarity that the primary re

India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future

by J Briscoe and R P S Malik; The World Bank and Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxiiv + 79, Rs 295 (paperback).


n a fascinating article, one of the world’s leading experts on renewable energy, A K N Reddy described the “greening of the World Bank as a process similar to the phase transformation of a physicochemical system” [Reddy 1993]. He argued that just like the freezing of liquid water to solid ice, transformation of institutions like the World Bank is a process (not a discrete event) that depends on surrounding conditions, which warrant and sanction the change. These constitute the necessary, enabling conditions. But these are not sufficient in themselves. For the process to be complete requires the birth of nuclei within the old phase that must grow to take over the whole system by expanding or coalescing. Reddy provided an analysis of the process as he saw it within the Bank and appeared reasonably optimistic about the greening process.

That was Barber Conable’s World Bank. The previous year’s World Development Report focused on development and the environment. As president of the World Bank, Conable felt so unsure of what his own officials were telling him about the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, that he set up an independent review commission, whose report led to the Bank withdrawing support to the project. That was 1993. Thirteen years on, the World Bank appears to have come full circle. Its latest review of India’s water economy contains perhaps the strongest ever advocacy of big dams by the World Bank. If there were greening nuclei that were born in the 1980s, they certainly appear to have beaten a hasty retreat in the 21st century!

This is not to say that the report under review is devoid of interest or insight. It contains a powerful analysis of India’s groundwater situation. It provides a refreshing look (coming from the Bank) at the crucial issues of pricing of water and electricity. In an international context, increasingly overshadowed by corporate control over the world’s water, the report avows in unequivocal terms that “in all cases, including in India, the ownership of water resides, and must continue to reside, with the state” (p 47). It argues for massive state investment in public goods such as sewers and waste water treatment plants. The report wants the state to ensure that “affected people become the first beneficiaries of such (large dam) projects” (p 60). It demands “ending the culture of secrecy and making transparency the rule” (p 53). In this review, we summarise some of the most interesting elements of the report. We then point to fatal fallacies in the Bank’s ecologically uninformed advocacy of mega-dams. We conclude by suggesting that no attempt at water policy in India can do without coming to terms with the spectacular agro-bio-hydro-geo-diversity of this multi-dimensional land, which the World Bank fails to do.

Groundwater CrisisGroundwater CrisisGroundwater CrisisGroundwater CrisisGroundwater Crisis

The report correctly paints an alarming picture of India’s groundwater crisis. Fourteen per cent of all blocks in the country are either over-exploited or critical and the figure is estimated to reach 60 per cent over the next 25 years. If this does not sound alarming enough, we need to look at the disaggregated picture, which clearly shows that where groundwater is available (the alluvial tracts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu), it is already heavily and almost universally over-exploited. Sixty to seventy per cent of the country, being “hard rock”, has very poor groundwater potential. Over extraction by tubewells here has engendered a severe man-made crisis of water. That aquifer depletion is concentrated in some of the most populous and economically productive areas adds to the worries. The report suggests that “about 15 per cent of India’s food is being produced using non-renewable, ‘mined’ groundwater” (p xviii).

The report rejects “command-andcontrol type of approaches” to regulating groundwater. It advocates “a legal framework which constrains the rights of people to pump as much water as they wish from their land, the separation of land rights and water entitlements, strong government presence to give legal backing for the development of participatory aquifer management associations and to provide sponsibility for the maintenance of the resource on which they depend is with those who have entitlements to use water from a particular aquifer” (pp 54-55).

The report builds upon the recommendations of the 1992 Vaidyanathan Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water and advocates a calibrated approach to the issue. It thoughtfully remarks: “it is clear that starting with the idea of increasing charges (for bad services provided by corrupt and inefficient agencies) will quite reasonably be resisted” (p 56). It, therefore, recommends that no tariff increase can even be contemplated without improving services first and providing them in an efficient and accountable manner. A similar point is made in the report regarding electricity subsidies. The report suggests that provision of “free power” is one of the factors responsible for accelerating the decline in the water table in India. But it also recognises that drastic elimination of electricity subsidies would be disastrous for farmers in India (pp 69-70). Conspicuous by its absence in the report is any reference to a key recommendation of the Vaidyanathan Committee – graded tariffs, that would severely discourage wasteful use of water and promote equity in its distribution, by assuring affordable water for all. The “participatory pricing”, entailing the participation of users in arriving at an acceptable rate of tariffs, is the recommendation of the recently released Report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes in India (set up by the union ministry of rural development).

Big Dams in the HimalayasBig Dams in the HimalayasBig Dams in the HimalayasBig Dams in the HimalayasBig Dams in the Himalayas

The central thesis of the World Bank review appears to be simple: since the tubewell honeymoon is more or less over, we must once again get back to big dams. And the main argument provided for this is: India’s water storage capacity is just 200 cum per capita. And this pales in significance when compared to the US and Australia (5,000 cum). So India must build more big dams to raise this figure. How simple it all appears when put in such bald statistical terms! No reference is made to the vastly higher land-man ratios in Australia and the US compared to India; no cognisance is taken of the fact that nearly all potential dam sites in India have either pristine forest close to them or people

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006 living in the submergence zones; no recognition either of the fact that massive environmental damage means that the US is destroying so many of its large dams today. During the big dam-building era of these nations, little was understood about the ecological consequences of damming rivers on such a massive scale. Today the “Cadillac Desert” in the US is seriously reconsidering its options.

Matters get worse when we examine more closely the sites where the World Bank wants India to make big dams. The Bank is forced to admit that most of the peninsular river basins (such as the Kavery, Krishna and Godavari), as also the Narmada and Tapti have exhausted their potential. It is then that we get a real shocker when the report says: “most of India’s hydropower potential is in the Himalayas, an area which has many of the world’s most environmentally and socially benign sites for hydropower” (pp 30-31). There is not a word of explanation in the report about this claim but there is Figure 2.24 (p 32). This graph plots the area submerged per mw of power generated by the dam against the persons displaced per mw. And, the graph finds that the Himalayan sites are clustered in the lowest left hand corner of the graph, showing that, per mw of power generated, both the area to be submerged and people to be displaced are amongst the lowest in the Himalayas. Therefore, the figure asserts “the Himalayan sites are the most socially and environmentally benign in the world” (p 32).

Resisting the temptation to heap ridicule on such a bizarre claim on the basis of so little, let us simply understand what the World Bank’s graph really shows. All the figure reveals is that Himalayan rivers have deep gorges and flow through mountainous terrain (so dams built on them will submerge relatively less area, all other things being equal) and that the land-man ratio in the Himalayas is likely to be among the highest in the world (relatively few people live there). Does this realisation (which is no revelation at all) warrant the conclusion the World Bank draws about the sites being socially and environmentally benign? The one word answer is “no”. More elaborately one could say that “probably precisely the opposite is the truth”. Scores of studies by environmentalists have shown that the Himalayan ecosystem is one of the most fragile in the world. And that there are many reasons why we should think a hundred times before planning to build mega-dams there. The World Bank does not say even a word on these.

Limitations of space allow only a brief mention here but this should be sufficient for readers to realise the dangers.

The north-east of India is one of just 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world [Myers et al 2000]. According to Valdiya (1999) as also Goswami and Das (2002), the neotectonism of the Brahmaputra valley and its surrounding highlands in the eastern Himalayas means that modifying topography by excavation or creating water and sediment loads in river impoundments can be dangerous. Quake-induced changes in the river system can adversely impact the viability of dams as several basic parameters of the regime of rivers and the morphology and behaviour of channels may change. “The last two major earthquakes in the region (1897 and 1950) caused landslides on the hill slopes and led to the blockage of river courses, flash floods due to sudden bursting of landslideinduced temporary dams, raising of riverbeds due to heavy siltation, fissuring and sand venting, subsidence or elevation of existing river and lake bottoms and margins and the creation of new waterbodies and waterfalls due to faulting” [Menon et al 2003].

A 1999 study of the International Commission for Snow and Ice warned that glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, at present rates are likely to disappear by 2035. This would lead to increased summer flows in some river systems for a few years, followed by a reduction as the glaciers disappear. The information on meltwater yield and its chemical and sediment characteristics is vital to the safety and maintenance of hydroelectric installations and reservoirs in the Himalayas [Hasnain 1996]. High-altitude lakes formed as a result of glacial melt are potentially very dangerous. The dams created through debris accumulated by glacial action on mountain slopes and valley floors, which hold back these waters, are comparatively unstable. A sudden breach can lead to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which cause catastrophic flooding downstream. Satellite imagery reveals evidence of GLOFs throughout the Himalayas [ICIMOD 2000]. A major GLOF in Nepal in August 1985 destroyed the Namche hydel project. Another one in June 2000 damaged the Naphtha-Jhakri hydel project, under construction in Himachal Pradesh. The implications of these issues (of which the World Bank review is not unaware, see pp 16-19), for its advocacy of big dams in the Himalayan region, find no mention in a report that places all its eggs in the Himalayan mega-dam basket.

Interlinking of RiversInterlinking of RiversInterlinking of RiversInterlinking of RiversInterlinking of Rivers

A similar ignorance informs the Bank’s view of the interlinking of rivers programme. The proposal is currently estimated to cost around Rs 5,60,000 crore. It is not clear what the basis of this figure is, where this money is coming from and whether land submergence and relief and rehabilitation (R and R) packages are included in this cost. There are no firm estimates available for running costs of the scheme, such as the cost of power required to lift water. In a country like India, which gets seasonal rainfall from monsoons, the periods when rivers have “surplus” water are generally synchronous across the subcontinent. Another key issue is how the reasonable needs of the basin states, which will grow over time, are to be taken into account while planning inter-basin transfers. Further, given the topography of India and the way links are envisaged, it might totally bypass the core dryland areas of central and western India, located on elevations of 300+ metres above MSL. It is also feared that linking rivers could affect the natural supply of nutrients through curtailing flooding of the downstream areas. Along the east coast of India, all major peninsular rivers have extensive deltas. Damming the rivers for linking will cut down the sediment supply and cause coastal and delta erosion, destroying the fragile coastal ecosystems. Ecologists have also shown how the scheme could adversely affect the monsoon system. The presence of a low-salinity, low-density layer of water helps maintain high sea-surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal. It is the consequent development of a low-pressure system that intensifies summer monsoon activity in the bay. Shutting off flow of fresh water could threaten this low-salinity layer with grave long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population. To move ahead on the riverlinking programme without sound and credible scientific data on the monsoon system that takes into account all possible air-sea-land-life interactions, would indeed be foolhardy [Rajamani 2005].

Anti-Farmer, Pro-Industry BiasAnti-Farmer, Pro-Industry BiasAnti-Farmer, Pro-Industry BiasAnti-Farmer, Pro-Industry BiasAnti-Farmer, Pro-Industry Bias

While the World Bank makes a case for private players being allowed entry to enhance competition in the water sector,

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

little attention is paid to the mechanisms of ensuring accountability of these players. The recent experience with the Delhi Jal Board surely does not augur well for World Bank-aided projects in the water sector. For completely inexplicable reasons, the review takes a position against recycling of water by industries, calling it “expensive” (p 66). In the same breath it reveals an incredible anti-farmer, pro-industry bias when it says: “irrigators must also understand that with limited resources and growing cities and industries, there must be transfer of water from the farm to the city…industrialists must exert their considerable pressure on government for putting in place systems whereby they can purchase the water they need from willing sellers (often farmers) for whom the value of water is much lower than it is for the industry” (p 66). In one short para, the World Bank gives away the entire direction of its thinking. Here is a country where 60 years after independence millions of people thirst for safe drinking water. And what does the Bank offer them? The simple logic of the market – since the farmer grows low-value grain (no matter that it is her food), she must sell her water to a factory that produces high-value cement. For that is the inexorable calculus of the market, of the “rational allocation of scarce resources”, as every student of neoclassical economics is taught, sadly even today, in India’s schools of economics.

Market, rather than security, is the mantra. But what India’s people, scorched by droughts, suicides and hunger, need first is security – security both from the ravages of ecology and the vicissitudes of the market. They need to evolve locationspecific mechanisms of conserving water and economising its use through finely worked out cropping and land-use patterns, which increase the interconnectedness of each element of the ecosystem, so that their vulnerability to external shock is reduced. This needs to be done with great creativity and sensitivity, in each socio-ecological context, respecting the balance in nature and the fabric of society. No one-size-fitsall prescriptions such as big dams or deep tubewells will prove the panacea. They are already and could become an even more serious part of the problem.




Goswami, D C and P J Das (2002): ‘Hydrological

Impact of Earthquakes on the Brahmaputra

River Regime’, Proceedings of the 18th National Convention of Civil Engineers, Guwahati.

Hasnain (1996): ‘Himalayan Glaciers: A Sustainable Water Resource’, ENVIS Newsletter, Vol 2, No 3, JNU, New Delhi.

ICIMOD (2000): Glacial Lakes and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, Mountain Development Profile, No 2.

Menon, M et al (2003): ‘Large Dams in the Northeast: A Bright Future?’ The EcologistAsia, Vol 11, No 1.

Myers, N et al (2000): ‘Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities’, Nature, 403.

Rajamani, V (2005): ‘Interlinking Rivers: Is It the Solution?’ The Hindu, August 29.

Reddy, A K N (1993): ‘Has the World Bank Greened?’ Green Globe Yearbook 1993, The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway.

Valdiya, K S (1999): ‘A Geodynamic Perspective of Arunachal Pradesh’, Keynote Address at Workshop organised by the GB Pant Instituteof Himalayan Environment and Development.

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top