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Water Systems Management in South Asia

Given its population density and poverty, on the one hand, and rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, on the other, south Asia seems to be facing an incipient water crisis not due to water shortage but intergovernmental conflicts. The knowledge base needed to research water systems management and deal with these conflicts has been neglected by countries in the region and only a trans-disciplinary approach, including the engineering and medical sciences along with social, political and economic expertise, will help in poverty alleviation and development.

Special articles

Water Systems Management in South Asia

Need for a Research Framework

Given its population density and poverty, on the one hand, and rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, on the other, south Asia seems to be facing an incipient water crisis not due to water shortage but intergovernmental conflicts. The knowledge base needed to research water systems management and deal with these conflicts has been neglected by countries in the region and only a trans-disciplinary approach, including the engineering and medical sciences along with social, political and economic expertise, will help in poverty alleviation and development.


outh Asia, the region with the largest population density in the world and widespread poverty, has also been identified by many as an area of quickly emerging water crisis [Molden et al 2001]. Excepting the island areas, the region covers about 3.3 per cent of terrestrial area and receives 6.8 per cent of the annual replenishable amount of water of the world. With this land and water resources, it supports 21 per cent of the world’s population, a large part of it poor. The challenges in water systems management is rooted in the common objective of all the countries – poverty alleviation and sustainable development. However, while the challenge is clear, the region is not ready with appropriate responses. Most importantly it does not have the necessary interdisciplinary knowledge base to address the problems. This paper tries to present a framework for generating research activities on water systems management in south Asia so that these gaps can be filled and objectives of sustainable and equitable development can be achieved.

In spite of the overall commonality of the nature of the challenges related to water systems management in various parts of south Asia and the hydrological continuities in the mainland of the region, the available literature is mostly limited to national level strategies and very little is available as an integrated regional strategy. Several non-official attempts have been made at creating a framework for a regional level approach to water systems management. They have been conceptually limited to management of shared river flows and not much progress has been achieved in that direction, except on forecasting and advance warning for floods in the Himalayan rivers. In recent years, regional collaboration in south Asia has progressed in the context of economic relations, free trade, tourism, etc. In the case of shared waters, the progress has been slowed down by, what can be called, the dominance of hydrological nationalism in the negotiating postures of the various governments. This hydrological nationalism has become an indicator of the nationalist commitment of political leaders in south Asia. However, without arriving at an informed approach to the management of its water systems, a part of which needs regional collaboration, the south Asian countries may not achieve broader economic success and poverty alleviation would remain a very difficult national task.

While the overwhelming poverty of a region or a country is generally linked with scarcity of water, in parts of south Asia, like in Bangladesh, the state of Bihar in India, the mid-hills of Nepal, that principle does not get mechanically verified. In these parts acute poverty exists with more than average water availability. Indeed, the region is in need of an in-depth and highly innovative approach to water systems research and management, both in terms of adopting a broad eco-hydrological approach as well as evolving innovative institutional mechanisms.

Water availability in south Asia in the form of rainfall is governed largely by the interaction of the monsoon with the uplands and the mountains in the region: for example, the Himalayan range and other uplands in the north and north-east of the subcontinent, the Ghats (Western and Eastern) for the southern parts of India, and the central highlands in Sri Lanka and India. In this paper, primary attention will be focused on the connected landmass of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as Islands, have a standalone hydrological situation and need only national level approach. Bhutan and Nepal are mountainous countries while Bangladesh is largely a flat country on the delta of the GangaBrahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin (except the south-eastern hill areas). Both India and Pakistan have diverse physiographic regions, starting from high mountains to the fertile flat plains to the active delta.

South Asia is in a comfortable water availability situation when precipitation per unit area is considered. With its very large population closing on to 1.5 billion, it has quite an uneasy position when water availability is assessed on a per capita basis. Increase in population has led to a 70 per cent decline in the per capita water availability in the region during 1950-1995 [ADB 2003a:4]. The monsoonal precipitation results in great temporal and spatial inequities in its regional distribution. This causes very large river run-offs during the monsoon period and very low flows during the rest of the year. Bangladesh receives heavy summer monsoon


run-off and about 40 per cent of the country is usually inundated when this run-off drains out into the Bay of Bengal. During the pre-monsoon months, large parts of the country face scarcity conditions. The temporal variation is no less difficult in the basins of non-Himalayan rivers where the advantage of critical premonsoon flows provided by snow melting in the spring is not there. In addition, across the lines of social divide, access to water is very much uneven and has caused chronic water insecurity for a great number of economically backward people.

The use of surface water for irrigation had initially received very high priority in the region [Ahmad 2003; Alagh 2001] and has so far been perceived as the main tool for poverty alleviation. In addition to surface water, from the 1960s, groundwater has also become an equally important source for irrigation providing about 210 cu kms of water. Thus, both gravity driven surface water and pumped groundwater sources support the world’s largest irrigation system in south Asia. The irrigation potential has expanded rapidly in the post-independence period and stands at more than 160 mha. Over the decades, the growth in the water demand from irrigation has also created the basis for conflicts at various levels and raised questions whether agriculture is raiding the region’s water supplies [Wilson 2001]. The rapidly growing industrial sector and urban areas are increasingly encroaching upon the available water supplies of the rural areas, for irrigation or the poorer people in cities. Briscoe and Malik (2006) address some of the conflicts and regional complexities.

Two new issues of water would increasingly emerge in the region in the coming years. Firstly, water will be seen increasingly as a basic human right [Gleick 1998]. Further, the satisfaction of water needs for maintaining the ecosystem services has also started to emerge as an important item for allocation. In the past several decades human knowledge on river systems all over the world has been greatly enriched by new research, recognition of inputs from diverse disciplines and consideration of the interests of diverse stakeholders. Quite significant policy changes have been achieved in many countries and are emerging in many others [Aylward et al 2005]. At the moment south Asia does not have any accepted regional strategy for addressing the future challenges of water systems management. At the national levels, for example, Datta (1999) and Das Gupta et al (2005) for Bangladesh, Ghosh-Bobba et al. (1997) and Niemczynowicz et al (1998) for India, Gyawali ((2001) and Dixit et al (2004) for Nepal, Faruqui (2004) and Gill (2000) in the case of Pakistan and Abeywickrema (1999) and Sirisena et al (2006) for Sri Lanka have analysed challenges facing integrated management of water systems. Samarakoon (2004) presents one of the very few regional studies.

In addressing these challenges, both at the national and regional levels, the urgent need for creating a trans-disciplinary knowledge base [Bandyopadhyay 2006a] and a radically transformed institutional framework [Maria Saleth 2004] has often been stressed. While structural interventions in the water systems of south Asia has a long and impressive history, the more recent absence of effective links between research at the local, regional or global levels that constantly produces new knowledge and options for new management practices leading to relevant and quick policy changes, poses a serious problem in the region [Bandyopadhyay 2006a].

The initial knowledge base and institutions for the present form of water administration in south Asia came from the European engineering tradition. In order to expand irrigated agriculture and to transport the agricultural products through waterways, the British rulers made systematic engineering interventions, particularly barrages and canals. These interventions had a positive economic impact as a result of which British engineers like Sir Arthur Cotton or Colonel John Pennyquick are remembered in the Godavari and Vaigai basins of south India [Briscoe and Malik 2006:1]. Even after the end of British rule in south Asia, the European knowledge base continued to be operational and to guide the increasing number of engineering interventions in water systems.

For the smaller Himalayan countries of Bhutan and Nepal, the growth of the institutional structure for water systems management was greatly influenced by that of engineering education and practices in the rest of the region, specially through the educational system in these countries and the water-related projects on the Himalayan rivers. Thus, the European paradigm of water management, directly or otherwise, maintained a long and decisive presence in the south Asian region. The post-colonial period is characterised by the continuation of practices designed with the same knowledge base as was introduced by the British, and institutional framework that continued after they left. This led to large investments in surface water projects and an explosive growth of groundwater-based irrigation in the 1960s. During the 1990s, the social and environmental impact of the rapidly expanding water projects and irrigation systems started to become conspicuous as movements in favour of the displaced and against environmental degradation became an important political process. Accordingly, the last 15 years have witnessed growing opposition to large water projects.

Disconnect between Water Systems Research and Development

The recent developments in water systems science and management are so fundamental that the transformation has received the status of an emerging paradigm shift [Falkenmark and Rockstrom 2004]. Water allocation is not anymore a matter of addressing competing consumptive uses. The new observations and knowledge have led to significant policy changes in Australia, US, EU and South Africa.

The case of south Asia, as much of most erstwhile colonies, is distinguished by a not-so-clear link between the recent advances in water systems knowledge and the actual practices in water systems governance. This has led to conditions where projects are designed and assessed with a knowledge base that did not address many important externalities, and thus, did not evolve with time. A look at the citation pattern of important governmental reports from here would indicate the presence of this crucial knowledge gap. It may be that in the post-colonial institutional set-up for water management, by design or otherwise, open professional criticisms, so much needed for the growth of water science anywhere, were overpowered by institutional hierarchy. Thus, vital professional criticisms were often not articulated, lest they got interpreted as non-compliance with institutional hierarchy. This is characteristic of most ex-colonies and in this context Wescoat et al (2000:394) observed that:

Cultural and ecological dimensions of water management fell

outside the formerly colonial and new international research

paradigms, both of which focused on irrigation systems, hydro

power and public health to the relative neglect of fisheries, flood

control and watershed management.

The obvious results have been serious restrictions on the internal mechanisms for the growth of knowledge or the ability to locate or generate new knowledge on water systems related to the social and environmental dimensions. As a result, many researchers often refrain from critical publications and remain satisfied with publishing rather marginal papers in marginal journals. Secondly, even when the knowledge front is pushed forward by independent scientific research, the inevitable critical elements involved often do not receive serious attention. Thus, no engagement is made between the independent researchers and official engineers. One important example of this type of cognitive stagnation is the absence of any refinement in the official process for project appraisal and assessment for water-related projects. This is not to say that the region has no independent professional doing high quality research on water systems. However, the scope of such activities is in need of substantial expansion and their knowledge links with the governmental structure need to be opened up [see for example, Goswami et al 2005]. Further, official restrictions imposed on the access to detailed hydrological data, particularly on the international rivers like the Ganga, have acted as obstructions to research and the growth of high quality interdisciplinary knowledge on the water systems of south Asia. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development Plan [NCIWRDP 1999:370] in India has observed that:

the secrecy maintained about water resources data for some of

the basins is not only highly detrimental but is also counter

productive. Hydrological data of all the basins need to be made

available to the public on demand.

As a result of such isolation, the governance of water systems has got detached from the ongoing and rapid forward movement of interdisciplinary knowledge. The process of integration of the various disciplines related to water by itself is a very complex process as described by Falkenmark (2004) in connection with the initiative called “Hydrology for Environment, Life and Policy” (HELP). The induction of new interdisciplinary knowledge in the practice of water systems management in south Asia is even more difficult due to the externalisation of the critical elements of the emerging knowledge base.

Among the various critical research publications on water systems management published that have made a mark on water projects in the region, example can be taken of the systematic review of the River Link Project of India as presented by Alagh et al (2006), analysis of the Nepal-India water relation by Gyawali (1999) or the cautionary analysis of the Polavaram irrigation project in India by Gujja et al (2006a) or the Kalabagh project in Pakistan by Khan (undated). A serious engagement of the government engineers and the independent water professionals could make fundamental positive contributions in all these cases. It is in this background of a very crucial disconnect between the advancing front of interdisciplinary knowledge and the actual practices of the management of water systems, that approach to a new research agenda in south Asia should be placed. It is important to recognise that the potential for such a research to be effective is rather limited but the transformation is expected to take place, by the strength of interdisciplinary and participatory research.

Features of Water Systems in South Asia

The interaction of the south-west monsoon with the Western Ghats, eastern Himalaya and the smaller hills in the north-eastern states of India and Bangladesh results in heavy monsoon rainfall in the respective windward slopes. The heaviest average annual precipitation of 11,873 mms is recorded at Mawsynram, a small town near Shillong, in the Meghalaya Hills in India. Himalayan foothills in Bhutan and Nepal also receive heavy monsoonal precipitation. About 80 per cent of the annual precipitation in south Asia occurs during the three monsoon months, from July to September. Many areas in the region face regular annual inundations to accommodate the intense rainfall and run-off, followed by long periods of water stress. There is also an apparent increase in instances of floods in the generally semi-arid regions of Gujarat, Rajasthan in India and adjoining areas in Pakistan.

The rivers fed by tributaries originating in its southern aspect of the Himalaya, carry by far the largest share of river run-off in the region. They also carry a very large sediment load generated by the Himalaya, which offers serious professional challenges in the sustainable management of these rivers [Bandyopadhyay and Gyawali 1994]. The larger of these rivers, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Indus, are international watercourses and connect the region hydrologically and culturally. In the past several decades, these rivers have also been the source of political discord in the region. The sharing of the lean season flow of the Ganga have been a matter of bitter disputes between Bangladesh and India [Mirza 2004]. Complexities between Nepal and India [Gyawali 1999] have revolved around the proposed dams on Himalayan rivers coming down from Nepal. In the case of the Indus basin, the construction of a hydropower project at Baglihar in India positioned India and Pakistan on opposing sides, needing the appointment of a neutral Swiss expert by the World Bank (2005) to arbitrate. In the same basin, the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh, are involved in a heated dispute over dams in the upper Indus (mainly in Punjab province) and their impact on the delta in the Sindh province.

Though the Tibet region of China is not considered part of south Asia, two major rivers, the Brahmaputra (Tsangpo in Tibet) and the Indus emerge from and travel through long distances in the trans-Himalayan areas in Tibet. The Ganga sub-basin is shared by Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal. The Brahmaputra subbasin is shared by Bhutan, China, India and Bangladesh. The Meghna sub-basin is shared between Bangladesh and India with small parts belonging to Myanmar. The GBM basin has the third largest annual run-off in the world and is well known for a very large hydropower potential and extensive annual flooding in the plains and the delta. The other major international basin in south Asia is of Indus, which is spread over China, India and Pakistan with a small part belonging to Afghanistan. Subba (2001) has presented a good general description of the Himalayan rivers while Bandyopadhyay and Gyawali (1994) have analysed the ecological and political complexities in the management of these rivers. The Himalayan rivers flow mainly across political boundaries in the region. An early attempt to divide it politically along river basins quickly became unacceptable to the politicians [Schwartzberg 1990].

The non-Himalayan river basins generally have lower annual precipitation and are located mainly in peninsular India and Sri Lanka. All of Bhutan and Nepal as well as most of Bangladesh belong to the GBM basin. The Indus basin covers about 70 per cent of the area of Pakistan. The Karan desert and the arid Makran coast of Balochistan fall outside the Indus basin. Sri Lanka, being an island, has a stand-alone hydrological situation. Areas in western Pakistan, north-west India, south India have arid and semi-arid conditions and are water scarce. They are vulnerable to variability in precipitation, characteristic of the monsoon system. In these large but less-water endowed area, the perennial rivers are not many and groundwater has been the main source of water for domestic and irrigational purposes. People’s institutions for conservation of surface water and its use in the recharge of groundwater have existed in all parts of south Asia. Among the important non-Himalayan rivers are Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, etc, in India. The central highland in Sri Lanka is the origin of most rivers among which the Mahaweli Ganga is well known for the major irrigation projects constructed on it and Kelani Ganga as the supplier of water to Colombo.

The water need of the region has been analysed by Siddiqi and Tahir-Kheli (2004a). Total water withdrawals have reached the 50 per cent mark. Irrigation accounts for about 85 per cent of the utilised water supply in south Asia. In Pakistan, more than 90 per cent of the surface water withdrawal is for irrigation [ADB 2003a:5]. For various reasons, in large areas groundwater has become the main source of water for irrigation, with half of the water supply for irrigation coming from groundwater sources. The demography of the region has been rapidly changing towards extensive urbanisation, while the economy of India, the largest country in the region, has been growing by about 9 per cent annually. In such a condition of rapid growth in water requirements, there are strong potentials for conflicts, as have been examined by Briscoe and Malik (2006).

The conflict between and among the various economic demands on water and the water needs for the continuation of related ecosystem services are to be internalised in actual practice, slowly but steadily [Bandyopadhyay 2005; Molden and de Fraiture 2004]. Long-term impact of the upstream diversions for irrigation are expressing themselves through conflicts with the downstream fishery economies and water needs for maintaining the productivity and biodiversity of the deltaic and estuarine ecosystems. The environmental degradation of the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forests in the world in the GBM basin and shared between Bangladesh and India or the delta of the Indus in Pakistan, have been frequently reported in this context. Mirza (2004) has presented an account of the environmental impact of upstream diversion of the water in the GBM basin and Faruqui (2004) has given a description of the same in the Indus basin.

The problems described above are only indicators, and no details are to be presented in this paper. Their solution depends on the availability and use of interdisciplinary knowledge and innovative institutional arrangements. A detailed analysis of the diverse challenges in integrated water systems management in south Asia is available in Mollinga et al (2006). Nevertheless, integrated management of water system remains a subject in need of further articulation and it remains an integral element in the research agenda. In this paper no attempt is being made to identify research needs for disciplinary research, which has a rich tradition by itself. The crucial gap in interdisciplinary research is the main object of this paper.

Framework for Water Systems Research

It is in this background of the dynamism at the knowledge front and future challenges in management that the elements for a research agenda for south Asia are presented below. In developing a framework for water systems research, the physiographic diversity of the region deserves serious attention, since the mountainous and upland watersheds, the foothills and the floodplains and the delta areas differ widely both in terms of the natural environment and the social relations with water systems. The diversity of research topics can be very wide but the objective remains very much similar, the alleviation of poverty through sustainable development. A range of research papers on water and poverty of the region have been published by the Asian Development Bank (2003b). However, based on a review of the available literature, the following themes are identified as priority areas around which more detailed research agenda on south Asian water systems is a must, if serious conflicts in the region are to be averted. The listed topics will be taken up for an introductory description in the following pages:

  • (1) Generation of eco-hydrological knowledge on surface water systems, in particular on the ecosystem services and assessment of environmental flows.
  • (2) Generation of eco-hydrological knowledge on groundwater systems and institutional mechanisms for its sustainable use and protection from pollution.
  • (3) Methodology for comprehensive assessment of water transfer projects on social, economic and ecological grounds – protecting water security for the poor.
  • (4) Wider application of economics in water policymaking and valuation of ecosystem services of water to promote conservation and sustainable use.
  • (5) Promotion of ecological perspectives of extreme hydrological events, like floods and droughts and regional mechanisms for the mitigation of their impacts.
  • (6) Social dimensions of water systems use, local governance and water conflicts.
  • (7) Emerging technological options in water systems management.
  • (8) Global change and water systems in south Asia: Scenarios and Adaptation.
  • (9) Issues of regional cooperation and conflict resolution.
  • Generation of eco-hydrological knowledge on the surface water systems, in particular on the ecosystem services and assessment of environmental flows: The potential economic contributions of water have been highlighted in almost all publications on this subject made in the past decades. The works of Verghese (1990), Ahmad et al (2001), Biswas et al (2004), Bhatia and Bhatia (2006), etc, have highlighted the role of irrigation in promoting economic development. Large dams have been built in south Asia in great numbers to store and provide water for irrigated agriculture. This helped the region to avoid widespread food scarcity in the 1960s. The irrigated areas in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains spread over Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, when added together, account for the largest irrigation system in the world and, no doubt, stands out as a great success story in the human victory against hunger. More recently, dams are meeting the demand for water from the rapidly growing urban-industrial sector. The record of research on the engineering aspects of dams and barrages on the rivers and the economic analysis of the positive impact of irrigation projects on agricultural production is very impressive. However, water systems management does not start with rivers, nor does it stop with the provisioning of irrigation water. Management of the hydrological processes in watersheds offers another approach to poverty alleviation. In such situations, ecologically informed watershed management is no less important for research, than irrigation in the command areas. In the case of India, the recent report of the Parthasarathi Committee highlights these prospects [Government of India 2006].

    Notwithstanding their success in expanding irrigated agriculture, dams or barrages have altered the flow of rivers, for example, the Indus, the Ganga and almost all the major rivers in peninsular India. From the upland watersheds till the delta and estuaries, at various parts of the basins, water offers diverse ecosystem services. During the initial period of dam construction, in the 1950s, these ecosystem services did not get recognised. As the long-term environmental impact of altered flow regimes are expressing themselves, serious degradations of the downstream ecosystem services are becoming apparent. In the country of origin of large dams, the US, approach to large dams has now changed fundamentally based on optimisation at the river basin level. However, the new concepts are not being easily internalised in the formal water governance in south Asia.

    In the absence of an eco-hydrological knowledge base, simplistic views could influence public perceptions and even the opinions of political leaders. For example, the perceived links between the deforestation in Nepal and the state of Uttaranchal in India with annual monsoon floods in the plains of Bangladesh [see Eckholm 1975]. It needed a painstaking eco-hydrological correlation by Hofer (1998) of rainfall events in these catchments and flood events in the plains to delink such perceived correlations. Interdisciplinary and in-depth analyses are particularly important in south Asia where projects often get a go-ahead without a clear and open understanding of their ecological impact [Bandyopadhyay 2006b]. Another example of the shortcomings of the traditional engineering approach has been provided by Mallik and Bandyopadhyay (2004) in the case of the river Ganga. Government of Pakistan (1996) and Akhtar et al (1997) have described the state of the environmental degradation of the Indus delta caused by upstream water transfers, where several large dams have been built.

    Accordingly, understanding of the movement of water along the terrestrial parts of the hydrological cycle is a very useful topic for research. This can strengthen the much needed hydrometeorological information base for the mountains and the upland watersheds of the region. Such a step will also lead to a more accurate assessment of the region’s water availability. Ecohydrological studies to assess the generation, transportation and deposition of sediments or to understand the ecosystem services provided by the flows of water from the watersheds to the estuaries, would be valuable inputs. There are serious questions that need to be answered, for example, on the hydrological role of tropical forests as raised by Bruijnzeel (2004). Smakhtin and Shilpakar (2005) have presented an initial exercise on the assessment of environmental water allocation in the East Rapti river in Nepal. A good review on the progress in ecological and environmental water requirement research in China [Jiang et al 2006] provides a useful direction. Similar studies need to be initiated in many other basins. The disciplines that can be involved in such research are wide and span from meteorology to human geography to hydro-meteorology to structural engineering, etc. Generation of eco-hydrological knowledge on groundwater systems, institutional mechanisms for its sustainable use and protection from pollution: Several areas in south Asia, specially the Indo-Gangetic basin, are rich in groundwater, both static and dynamic. In other parts, where groundwater recharge rates are lower, this dependence is no less. More than half of the region’s irrigated area depends on it. However, since the property rights status of groundwater is very different from that of surface water, conflicts over it are more localised. Rapid decline in the water table in the drier parts of south Asia is a matter of great concern. One part of the solution is quicker recharge and for this, research on the eco-hydrology associated with groundwater, its link with surface sources, recharge mechanisms, etc, need to be studied. Ghosh and Sharma (2006) have provided a detailed account of the groundwater hydrology in India from which excellent ideas for research can be generated. Moench (1994) has made an excellent analysis of the political economy of groundwater use in India and exposed serious administrative and knowledge gaps. Singh and Singh (2002) have observed for India that:

    Overexploitation of groundwater in several parts of the country has resulted in declining groundwater levels, a reduction in supply, saline water encroachment, drying of the spring and shallow aquifers, increased cost of lifting, reduction in free flow and even local subsidence in some places. In several parts of India declining water levels are in the order of one-two month/year. It has been reported that declining water levels can reduce India’s harvest by 25 per cent or more.

    In contrast, in both India and Pakistan, where surface water is used for irrigation, water logging has resulted in rising groundwater levels [World Bank 1998]. The other important part of the decline is related to quality. Pollutants discharged by agriculture, industry and human settlements have degraded groundwater in the whole region. Here, there are important gaps in knowledge on the ecology of groundwater systems and laws for their protection, which offers areas for new research activities. Groundwater is an economic input and research on accurate assessment of the annual sustainable groundwater availability and new technologies for rapid recharge in various parts of the region constitutes an important priority. The institutional mechanisms needed for its sustainable use has become a clear research priority. Shah (1993) has described that, unlike surface water, groundwater has become a market commodity in large areas. Steps to ensure ecologically sustainable groundwater-use will face many hurdles. Janakarajan and Moench (2006) have studied the socio-economic dimension of groundwater in India and concluded that its depletion and degradation is a big factor for increasing rural poverty. The picture is not very different in other parts of south Asia.

    One more important area needing research is the degradation of groundwater in Bangladesh and eastern India by the release of naturally occurring arsenic through geo-chemical processes. Bundschuh et al (2005) have provided a very important collection of papers related to this problem. In view of the widespread human suffering caused in the region by the presence of arsenic in groundwater that has been used for drinking by the local people for several years, understanding of the associated chemical processes and impact of arsenic in groundwater on health offer important research areas.

    The potential policy research areas on groundwater include work on an ecologically informed property rights regime and constitute a no less necessary area of research related to studies on policy, law and management of water systems. The related areas of research would be spread over engineering geology to soils sciences to sociology of local water institutions to environmental law. Comprehensive methodology for the assessment of water projects on social, economic and ecological grounds – protection of water security for the poor: In a densely populated region with wide spatial and temporal variations in precipitation, transfer of water from one part to another is a common expectation. In postindependence India (and Pakistan), major water development projects have been constructed for storage and transfers. These projects are seen as the creators of new rural prosperity and plans for many more such transfer projects have now been made. Unfortunately, the mechanism for the appraisal of such projects ignored many important social and environmental dimensions. The lack of official recognition of the ecological damages, insensitiveness to the problems of rehabilitation of the involuntarily displaced gave birth to people’s movements in all parts of the region. As a result, the World Bank had withdrawn from funding the Sardar Sarovar Project in India and from the Arun-III hydro-electric project in Nepal. The old method for appraisal and approval of water-related projects is in need of urgent reworking. The Planning Commission in India had discussed a wider framework for the assessment of water projects, but no decisions have so far been taken. Desai (2006) has been working on the preparation of an extended framework for the appraisal of such projects in the Indian context. In all other parts of the region, similar non-governmental initiatives have also been taken.

    While water-related projects in south Asia had mainly been taken up by the government departments, the public-private partnership and outright private sector participation in the water sector has slowly gained ground [Briscoe 1999]. In the era of liberalisation and globalisation, unless proper institutional protections are made, scarce water runs the risk of being cornered by the rich and the politically powerful. Accordingly, there is a need for all water transfer project to be painstakingly and openly assessed with the ultimate goal of broad human well-being and sustaining the ecosystem services. In the absence of such a mechanism, big investments in water projects, like irrigation, would get approved, through an inadequate assessment process.

    The Tawa project in Madhya Pradesh in India is an example of unscientific design. If due improvements are not made, the transfer projects may rob the poor of one region of basic water needs to fuel the rapidly growing demands of the urban-industrial sector. Such a policy vacuum on this subject is wasteful of the water available in the region and exposes the country to serious risks of extensive potential conflicts as described by Gujja et al (2006b) in the case of the planned Polavaram project. Water as a human right should not be forgotten when allocating water as an economic input. There is an excellent opportunity for undertaking interdisciplinary research on the appraisal and assessment of projects, spread over the disciplines of history, sociology, economics, political science, regional development, technology assessment and institutional studies. Wider application of economics in water policymaking and valuation of ecosystem services of water to promote conservation and sustainable use: Economics has so far played a very traditional and restricted role in water systems management in south Asia. Many reputed economists have, however, worked extensively on the economics of irrigation and related agricultural production. An impressive amount of literature is available on this subject and Vaidyanathan (1999) has given a realistic picture of economics of irrigation in India. The water sector suffers from economic ills of underutilisation, inequitable distribution, heavy loss of stored water, etc, but their quantification and subsequent use in policy has not happened. Research on more advanced topics, for instance, pricing of water, allocation under conditions of physical scarcity, etc, have not entered the decision support arena.

    Water is a provisioning service of natural ecosystems and description of its link with economics is conceptually challenging.

    Among several researchers, Hanemann (2006) has presented a multidimensional economic conception of water. Urging for the recognition of water as an economic good, Ward et al (2002) have stressed “the need to develop flexible institutions to maximise water’s beneficial use in the face of growing demands for scarce and variable supplies”. This statement was made with reference to the people living in places with low levels of precipitation. In south Asia, with its wide spatial variation in the annual precipitation, the statement equally applies, however. What is more important in the south Asian context is that when the dependence of the poor on the ecosystems services provided free by nature is considered, ecological economics can become useful in protecting and promoting their livelihoods. Further, a method for the valuation of diverse ecosystem services can substantially alter the perspectives and economic viability of water projects.

    Ecological economics of water system in south Asia is, however, in a very embryonic stage. At the governmental level, engineers and politicians are quite uncomfortable with the prospects of articulation of the ecological externalities of waterrelated engineering projects. On the other hand, many nongovernmental organisations view the expansion of the role of economics in water systems management as a point of entry for the market system and privatisation, which are anti-poor and against equitable use of water. This is indeed a very important and new topic for interdisciplinary research. Contrasting this point of view, Rogers et al (2002:1) have noted that:

    there are many different ways to promote equity, efficiency

    and sustainability in the water sector and water pricing is

    probably the simplest conceptually, but most difficult to

    implement politically.

    In south Asia, commoditisation of water started with the emergence of water markets, which have been analysed by Shah (1993). The arrival of bottled water for drinking marked another step towards commoditisation of water. While there have been no protests by NGOs on the first form of water markets, many of them take stand against bottled water. Bhatia et al (1994) have made a detailed report on the role of regulations, water tariffs and fiscal policy on water conservation and pollution control in India. As south Asia exposes itself more and more to the process of globalisation, it needs to accept a greater role of economics in water systems management. What this role will be, depends on the research that would be taken up. Enough time has passed hoping that simple legal structure can stop the inefficient water use in irrigation, callous attitude towards industrial pollution and dire neglect of the water based ecosystems. If the present ways are unchanged, it will surely make the region a fertile ground for water-related corruption and conflicts.

    Cesano and Gustafsson (2000) have analysed the social, technical and environmental aspects of economic globalisation on water systems. Valuation of ecosystem services provided by water is an urgent and important area of research. Empirical work on broad application of economics on small water systems can be a starting point. In due course, such economic analyses can be extended to the larger river basins or groundwater aquifers. Economics can provide the tool for breaking new grounds in sustainable management of water systems and help clear many water-related impasse including very sensitive matters related to sharing of river flows [Aylward et al 2005]. If the approximate valuation of the ecosystem services provided by the Himalaya is considered in regional negotiations, the whole Himalayan belt, spanning from Arunachal Pradesh to Kashmir would stand to benefit greatly. Accordingly, systematic research on this subject would be extremely trans-disciplinary and generate many interesting policy guidelines. The research can be rooted in ecohydrology, sociology, plant sciences, animal sciences, chemistry, ecological economics and environmental economics.

    Promotion of an ecological perspective of extreme events, like floods and droughts and regional mechanisms for the mitigation of their impacts: The climatic variability frequently creates conditions of very intense precipitation as well as scarcity of rainfall. Floods and droughts are regular events here and one of the countries in the region, Bangladesh, is perceived as country where poverty and hunger is caused by devastating floods. Further, global climate change is expected to have its own share of additional influences on the nature and distribution of these extreme events. Natural extreme events related to water are, by themselves, important objects for research for understanding the hydrological and geomorphic processes associated with them. These are quite specific to regions and, hence, are not addressed significantly in global water-related documents. Kale (1998) has made a very good contribution to the scientific understanding of floods in India. If effective mitigation of the impact of such extreme events is the objective, there is also a vital need to distinguish between the natural reasons behind floods and droughts and the human contributions to the accentuation of the impact of climatic variability. Bandyopadhyay (1989), in the case of droughts in India, and Bandyopadhyay and Mallik (2005), in the case of floods in south Asia, have shown why such a separation requires a close understanding of the associated ecological processes and ecosystem services.

    Many other parts of the region specially the western parts of India and Pakistan, and rainshadow areas of the Western Ghats suffer frequent drought conditions. For example, according to the South Asia Regional Water Vision (2000) in the next few decades, Pakistan will face serious food shortages due to scarcity of water. In this region, there is a clear and disturbing trend of declaring any event of inundation or scarcity of water as “natural disasters” – of floods and droughts, as the case may be. Real extreme events occur rarely [Kattelmann 1994] but it is advantageous for politicians to term even small events as “natural disaster”, because such a situation opens the gateway for large quantities of funds for relief. This tendency acts as an obstacle to the growth of holistic and scientific understanding of the underlying natural processes. Thus, the task of the creation of scientifically robust mitigation plans or taking the advantage of the positive contributions of such events, like regular annual inundations, is obscured. Confronting this attitude would contribute significantly to the demystification of the “Virtual Disasters” and pave the way for an informed professional approach to the mitigation of the negative impact of extreme events and maximisation of the positive ones, through the use of floodproofing or drought resistant practices. The negative impact of flood control structures on the fishing economy in Bangladesh has been explained very well by Ali (2000).

    The strengthening of the ecological knowledge base would surely work towards a clarification of the “disaster” syndrome and articulate the positive ecosystem services, specially of the annual inundations. Referring to the water scarcity in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in the drier part of India, Agarwal et al (2001) observed that many will term what is happening in Gujarat and Rajasthan a “natural disaster”. This is really far from the truth. It is truly a “human-made” or rather “government-made disaster”. Similarly, strong non-governmental opinions have been expressed about the possible links of the floods in India during the monsoon months of 2006 with unscientific operation of dams [Dogra 2006]. New research should be able to answer such questions like whether floods are increasingly becoming human induced disasters. In designing appropriate mitigation measures, it will be very important to view the extreme events from the perspective of both genders.

    In the case of international basins, like the GBM, cooperative mechanisms exist for advance warning on flood events. What is needed is, of course, far more extensive arrangements. The need is to initiate eco-hydrological research on the flood processes by the countries sharing the basins. Such studies on flood and drought events should also be undertaken within the national limits. In the context of monsoon fed rivers, the work of Levy, Gopalakrishnan and Lin (2005) on flood management in Yangtse exemplifies the type of research that can be taken up. Such research activities would be useful in providing a mechanism to reduce their negative impacts and to enhance their positive impacts. This is particularly important in the case of the floods in south Asia, which provide a great number of ecosystem services to the floodplains. Interdisciplinary research on these events would need the involvement of meteorology, hydrology, sedimentology, fisheries sciences, hydro-geology, sociology, regional studies, political science, etc. Social dimensions of water systems use, local governance and water conflicts: For nearly a millennia, water in south Asia was managed by community-based organisations which were as diverse, as are the water endowments and physiographic characteristics of the specific areas. In the past few decades nongovernmental initiatives have established effective and revitalised institutional structures for such local water management. Various activities related to water are also divided between the two genders. The governmental departments established by the British had replaced these diverse institutions while being very focused on the engineering approach. With the introduction of larger engineering interventions, the scale of losses and gains from these projects has become larger, increasing the stakes of the concerned social groups. Many people bear the huge costs, in terms of involuntary displacement while other groups gain from the various projects. Unfortunately, there is no clear information on the state of such displaced people and Patkar (2004) has aptly described the gravity of the rehabilitation issue as a social challenge. The impact of involuntary displacement is also shared very unequally between the two genders. Thanks to people’s movements, the related social dimensions were recognised by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which was established to look at the complex linkages of dams and human societies.

    A compilation of experiences on local level management from various parts of the region has been made by Moench et al (1999) establishing the agility of the community-based organisations. It is well known that, neither by complete dependence on the local organisations, nor by a complete institutional monopoly of the governmental departments, can water management challenges in the various spatial levels be effectively addressed. As Biswas (2001) has observed:

    Over the past decade, it has become increasingly evident that the water problem in a country can no longer be resolved by the water professionals and/or the water ministries alone; the problem has simply become far too complex, interconnected and large to be handled by any one institution irrespective of the authority and resources given to it, or by one group of professionals, irrespective

    of their competence and good intentions.

    Water is the basis for the production of crops and the question of access and allocation has been answered in diverse ways. In areas with good social leadership, human societies in many waterscarce areas of south Asia have evolved appropriate practices for the conservation and equitable use of water. Agarwal et al. (2001) provide interesting examples of water harvesting and use in water scarce regions. The Economic and Political Weekly (2006) provides a compendium on water conflicts through series of articles on the social dimensions of water. It refers to conflicts on both quantitative aspects of sharing and the qualitative aspects of degradation of resource. The situation is expected to become more complex with increasing economic role of the private sector in the region. Conflicts at the local level are no less important for research. Health issues are an important aspect of social dimensions of water and constitute an important area for research. So is the issue of corruption in the water sector here [UNESCO 2006]. Iyer (2003) has reported on an innovative approach to resolving the well known Cauvery water dispute by direct dialogue among farmers of the states in conflict. There is a need to continue to innovate towards greater dialogues among all stakeholders, specially in the context of expected new demands for commercial farming, including biofuel cultivation in the coming years. In view of the clearly emerging water conflicts in large parts of south Asia and clear signs of decay of the riverine systems, social dimensions of water systems, local level governance and mechanisms for conflict resolution would be a very critical research area. Such research activities would be spread over disciplines of hydrology, public health, political science, economics, ecological economics and engineering. Emerging technological options in water systems management: With water becoming an increasingly sought after resource among competing demands, in addition to institutions for conflict resolution, attention has been focused on technological innovations in providing both supply side and demand side solutions. South Asia being the largest user of water in a rather low efficiency irrigation system, technological innovation towards increasing efficiency of irrigational water use and quicker transfer of technologies constitutes an important area for research. There are many excellent universities for agricultural science and technology in south Asia and they are fully involved in the development of water efficient agricultural practices. It is important to make sure that the related technologies are transferred and used in the fields without delay.

    Another very promising research on technological option is technology for desalination, which has the potential for bringing dramatic changes in the domestic water supply scenario all along the south Asian coasts. Uche et al (2006) have given a detailed account of the potential of the desalination technologies. The other area in which research needs to be focused is the re-use of water and innovation of related technologies. With the rapid move towards urbanisation and industrialisation in south Asia, these elements of research would surely be highly useful. On the other hand, lack of attention or institutional laxity towards new technologies would prove to be very damaging to the prospects of sustainable development in the long run. Research on this subject would involve contributions from engineering sciences, law, economics, public administration and agriculture. Global change and water systems in south Asia: scenarios and adaptation: The impact of global climate change on the precipitation, stream flow and water availability have been a major area of global research in the past decade [see for example, Erda et al 1996; Milli et al 2005]. The impression that the global climate change will have an important effect on the climate of south Asia is quite realistic [Mirza and Ahmad 2005]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) third assessment report (IPCC-TAR) has indicated the possibility of greater frequency and intensity of the extreme events related to water. Thus, additional impact of global climate change on the natural variability is expected. Preliminary indications indicate that, in addition to the reduction in the snow and ice cover in the Himalaya, water scarcity and extreme events in the region may be accentuated.

    In view of the potential for conflicts on water in the region, global climate change opens up three major areas of research; one on the nature and extent of the hydrological impact of global climate change, mitigation measures through carbon sequestration and the ways to adapt to these changes. The coastal areas are the habitat of millions who depend on marine fishing for livelihood.

    The IPCC fourth assessment report (IPCC-FAR) is expected to be published soon and this will provide a more accurate assessment of the possible hydrological impacts of global climate change on south Asia. This is a vast area of collaborative international research and programmes on all the aspects of climate change need to be taken up, specially on vulnerability and adaptation. The research on such topics would involve input from disciplines of oceanography, atmospheric sciences and sociology among others. Issues of regional cooperation and conflicts resolution: Indications are clear that unless proactive steps are taken south Asia may soon enter a period of intense competition for and conflicts over water resources at all spatial and institutional levels. While international rivers offer the largest share of available water in the region, they also offer the root causes of immense intergovernmental frictions and disputes in the region. Intergovernmental conflicts on water constitute a well-researched subject [Siddiqi and Tahir-Kheli 2004b] and a large amount of literature exists on this subject [see for instance Abbas 1982; Crow et al 1995; Salman and Upreti 2002]. It is in this background, that regional cooperation and conflict resolution with the new interdisciplinary knowledge base is seen as an important area for research. Crow and Singh (2000) provide a wide backdrop to the possible mechanisms for cooperation on south Asian waters, not necessarily limited between or among nation states. Richards and Singh (2002) have also exposed the problems in addressing inter-provincial water disputes in the case of India.

    While at the global level the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which was opened for signature in 1997, provides some framework for addressing conflicts, this area is open for research in the specific context of south Asia. Thus, mechanisms for conflict resolution at the local to the intergovernmental levels are a very important area for research in social and political sciences. The lack of multilateral approach to development of river basins has often been shown as a reason for lack of cooperative mechanisms. However, even in the cases of bilateral efforts, the traditional engineering based approach to water systems are also found to act as obstacles, as in the case of joint management of floods [see for example GoI and GoB 1990]. In contrast, agreements on other economic platforms are not hindered by such diplomatic sensitivities. This is another instance of the urgent new role for a new conceptual framework for water systems management in south Asia. Research on this subject would involve disciplines of hydrology, ecology, diplomacy, economics, sociology, history, etc.


    South Asia, with its high level of poverty, rapid process of industrialisation and urbanisation, and larger than average water availability per unit terrestrial area, presents real challenges in research for water systems management. The challenges are transdisciplinary and involve expertise as much from the engineering sciences, as the social, political and medical sciences. The region is rich in potential disciplinary expertise for undertaking such research. The topics outlined range from eco-hydrological understanding of surface and groundwater to social aspects, (specifically access, gender and health) of water use to greater role for economics in policymaking for water systems, etc. Among the various topics, professional research on regional cooperation and conflict resolution has the potential of making the most important inputs to the challenge of the use of water systems for poverty alleviation and sustainable development in this region. Without the support of such an interdisciplinary research, management of water systems in south Asia will surely have a conflict-prone and difficult future.




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