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Water Conflicts Workshop

Water | Oct 5, 2016

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on Understanding and Resolving Water Conflicts, organised jointly by the Forum for Water Conflicts in India, TERI, and ATREE on October 5, 2016

One of the most important questions in the country and possibly in the world, is how to manage conflicts around water. 12 years ago when I set up my foundation, Arghyam, I wasn’t an expert on the issue. But over these years, I have engaged with the water sector very deeply and I’m still continuing to learn. Thanks to my experiences with other civil society activities in the last 20 years and my ringside seat watching my husband’s career in the corporate sector, I have seen both the opportunities and challenges in this work.

Conflicts Are Opportunities
Sustainable shifts of paradigm can emerge from deep conflicts. For example, World War II with its millions of casualties and deep realignment of world politics, did allow for one thing to happen, which is the engagement of women in the formal workforce. In the last eight decades, women have taken back more space in the world to improve their own economic opportunities. So I always think of this as one positive example, though it came out of one of the worst conflicts in human history. Of course, this does not mean that we should create conflicts deliberately just to yield beneficial side effects. But we need to acknowledge that conflicts can yield a lot of information about resources, competition, mismanagement, power structures, and latent demand.

Examining these conflicts with an academic but humane perspective can be the first step towards reducing or preventing conflict. Analysing them and devising taxonomy and typology becomes extremely useful in terms of creating a whole basket of approaches for resolving current conflicts and trying to prevent future ones. It’s useful in this sector to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal or BHAG, like one day there will be no more conflict around water. If we keep that as a faraway vision and then work systematically towards it, who knows what will happen in the future. We have a long way to go though.

Over the past 12 years I’ve noticed that sometimes those of us who engage in the water sector often come from a water mindset, and that could limit opportunities to look for solutions. I urge people working on these issues to also step outside the sector and look upstream at linkages elsewhere that could help you with your own work. Broadly speaking, the two main reasons why there are conflicts are due to quality and quantity issues. We can immediately see how many externalities exist in the question of both quantity and quality. Agriculture, industry, culture, personal choices, and climate change are some of the many determinants of water conflicts. In order to prevent conflicts or reduce their negative impact in India, we need to start officially moving towards a low water economy.

In India, we have some history and tradition of being a low water society. Coming from a deeply ecological perspective, people have always thought of water as a valued resource that should not be wasted. Can we then also become a low water economy? As our governments draw us into the narrative of a high growth economy to lift people out of poverty, can we simultaneously look at being a low growth water economy? Can we design systems and improve processes so that they use less water? How can we look across the supply chains of agriculture, industry, and urbanisation? When we design the next 7,000 towns that need to be updated with public infrastructure, how can we rethink water infrastructure so that the towns reduce their water footprint?

This will require immense data collection, analysis, and dissemination, but in a very transparent manner, so that all stakeholders can monitor the progress. Farmers, corporations, and city managers need to have an idea of what their water footprint is, and then be able to set ambitious goals for reducing it. We must keep an eye out for all the amazing new technologies that make it possible to bring this data together from diverse sources, which may include crowd-sourcing, sourcing through research, sourcing through government data, primary data, or secondary data. There are many new technologies that have made it easier to do all of these things, and other technologies that enable us to create better visualisations of this data so that people can understand it easily.

Leveraging Technology
Recently I met Alejandro Iñárritu, an Oscar-winning director. He’s very concerned about the issue of migrants, refugees, and immigration around the world. So his next movie is going to be a partial documentary using virtual reality. When I asked him why he was doing that, he said, “When you can allow people to immerse themselves in the situation of a refugee on a boat coming from Syria, for example, then you help people to improve their empathy.” Unless we begin to improve our empathy and understanding, I can’t imagine reducing any kinds of conflict, including the water conflict. Technologies like virtual reality or augmented reality might be a way to create water consciousness in people by directly letting them experience things like the plight of people in the
Bihar floods or the Cauvery basin situation. Imagine immersing yourself in Vidarbha or Marathwada or in Orissa where the Mahanadi issues are coming up. What will that mean in terms of moving dialogues and discourses forward? The water practitioner community has a role to play in feeding the creative imagination of people who are going to create such multimedia efforts. I don’t think we should knock this because it’s the way the world is moving, and we have to learn to move with them.

There is a game my son pointed me to called “Fate of the World”. It is meant for ordinary citizens to begin to address the extraordinarily complex problems we are facing today. For example, how are we going to address climate change? Fate of the World allows you to actually immerse yourself in a global game, where you get to be a policy maker and figure out how to resolve things. What would you do about climate change? What policies would you think of? These are simple things that may trigger people to think more critically about their own choices. We have a sophisticated basket of technologies, at the back-end of these very serious gaming techniques. We have machine learning, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and as these emerge, all of us in the water sector have to keep an eye out to see how we can use these technologies to achieve our common societal goals.

Sometimes I feel that we have not yet caught up in the technological race in India. That may be to our advantage because now, we can perhaps retain some of our water wisdom, while bringing in new technology so that we don’t go the wasteful way of the West. We have the capability to look at diverse perspectives and data sources to build out models for future water use in India. The key is for us to keep pushing for data to be democratically collected, kept on open platforms, and shared transparently. When you put relevant data, democratically gathered, in the hands of people and communities, they are much more likely to devise their own creative social protocols, restrained practices, right price signalling, and other incentives that are required to manage water more equitably and sustainably. The work that Arghyam and its partners have done in Participatory Groundwater Management over the last six years has proven this to us.

Ways to Minimize Water Conflicts
People have started talking about the world already being at peak water. Unlike peak oil, peak water seems to be quite a contestable idea because water is on an annual renewable cycle. However, it’s important for us to think of it this way, because what it essentially means is that we are using up our fossil water. We are taking all our renewable water for human use and starving the ecological needs of the planet. When we talk about peak water, we’re really talking about reaching the physical, environmental, and economic limits on meeting human demands for water and the subsequent decline of availability. But as I mentioned earlier, conflicts are always opportunities.

What happens when you hit peak water? Look at what’s happening in oil or other commodity prices around the world as we reach peak levels of commodity use, availability, or economic viability. In some parts of the world, we seem to have already reached peak water demand. To quote Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute, the latest data shows the continuation and acceleration of a stunning trend. US water withdrawals for all purposes are declining, not growing. The world’s largest economies, China and the US, are coming to grips with their water situation and rapidly innovating their way out of excess water use.

In five years, I believe we will see similar data coming out of China. They are working very aggressively to reduce their water footprint. India is at that cusp. Per capita consumption in some parts of the world is also going down, with more efficiencies built into taps, pumps, pipes, and shower heads. European cities are moving their norms of LPCD downwards, from 135 to 100 LPCD. They did this because they have found that we don’t need more than 100 litres per person per day in an urban environment, due to all the efficiencies they’ve generated through reuse and making the cycles of water use smaller. So that’s interesting to us in India as we look at how we should develop our next 8,000 towns and cities. Can we take the 135 LPCD norm that we have today down to 100? Multiply that by the number of people, and you get significant water savings.

A recent study attempts to deepen the understanding of the impact of diets on resource use by analysing the effects of changes in diet on consumptive water use at a country level and at a global level. It first analysed the impact of modifying diets to fulfil the Dietary Guidelines by the WHO, and then the effect of shifting from animal-based food products like meat to a more plant-based diets. In both analyses, the diet composition was kept as close as possible to the traditional and culturally acceptable food composition. The study found that by reducing animal product consumption, global green water use would be reduced by 21%. The effect on blue water use in food production would be about 14%. What impact can this have on our water future if people eat less meat and care more about local, organic, artisanal produce?

India’s people and their changing food habits will impact global green water use quite significantly. One way to minimize future water conflicts in India would definitely be to include a national information campaign. We need a national information campaign on both nutrition and embedded water, and its impact and reflection on how we produce food in this country. In agriculture around the world, people are trying to produce more crops per drop, and to respond to climate change-driven changes in rainfall, both in terms of location and quantity. Farmers in the US are relooking at dry land farming. They’ve had so much drought in the last few years that they are rethinking how to have rainfed agriculture, but with much more innovation through technology. If we start thinking like that, the whole scenario of water availability begins to change. They have understood that it is less about maximising this year’s crop, and more about protecting the crops of future years because they can see the patterns now.

The Third Age of Water
Industry is completely incentivised right now. It’s under extreme duress and needs to use less water throughout its production processes. Small factories in India probably suffer the most. Recently, a garment factory in Bellary had to quarter its production because there was simply no water. Similarly large companies like Mahindra and Mahindra had to shut down a plant in Maharashtra because they could not get water. Industry is very sensitive to the question of water, and most large corporations can’t get away with bad practices. The government is also responding. In April, the Environment Minister, Javadekar, said that “India will aim to reduce industrial water usage by half in the next five years by using the latest technologies to reuse, recover, and recycle water.” These are things worth holding government to.

Meanwhile, bigger corporations around the world are signing on to a global campaign for water disclosure. This would mean disclosing how much water they are using, both in the factories, inside their fence, and throughout their supply chain. From beverage companies and info-tech to hospitality, automotive, and agro-companies, they are really trying to get more efficiency from their water. Often for economic reasons and because of public pressure, it’s getting harder for them to get the water they need, whether from the utilities, the ground, or the rain. Companies that achieve zero discharge, reduce their pollution, or improve their water efficiency are getting recognised around the world. This is one of the drivers for industry. There are many rogue sectors like energy and mining that are not caught up with this at all, but that gives us an opportunity to pressure them, when other sectors are leading the way.

Additionally, there’s an increasing sensitivity about wastewater reuse. The good news is that in India, we are so bad at it that the only way is up. After 20 years or so, we may actually have contained the global, and hopefully the Indian, demand for more fresh water. To me, that is a really positive way of looking at reducing or preventing conflict. Peter Gleick has said that the first stage of water was when human civilization had barely begun. Water was just something we took from the natural environment where we needed it. But as populations grew, as civilization expanded, and as cities developed, we outgrew our local water resources, and started to develop the second age of water. This was when science and technology began to play a role in helping us understand what we were doing to our water resources and how to access the water we needed in a much more concentrated, intense way. So we started to build dams, irrigation systems, water treatment plants, and massive distribution systems that characterise water use today. But the second age of water is also ending. We are moving into a time when the manipulations of the second age also are not enough. They have massive contamination, overdraft, and unsustainable use of water. We have contamination of water resources and water related diseases, and we need a new way of thinking about water.

This is where the third age comes in. The third age is ultimately going to have to be a sustainable water management system. We will have to learn to live within our means. We will have to realise that ecosystems are a critical component of our water cycle — it’s humans and the natural environment together. The third age ultimately is going to have to be a sustainable age. What Gleick is getting at in this concept, and what I believe in as well, is that we need to keep our minds open to new ideas and to believe in the human capacity to demonstrate. If we take desalination as an example, most people’s hair stands on end because we’ve been trained to think of it as a horrible thing. It seems ecologically and financially unsound. But what if I stepped into the mind of a techno-optimist? What if we figured out a much cheaper, less energy embedded way to desalinate? What if we figured out what to do with the effluents and how to not impact the pH balance of the coastal areas? We have to keep our minds and hearts open, as we look into the future, as we look into the deeper and more politically complicated questions of issues like the Kaveri and Mahanadi basins, or even the conflicts around the local aquifer or local tap.

As we look at how to address water conflicts, we must be self aware, self-critique, and be open to different scenarios from different perspectives. Is it better to work with the politicians or is it better to work with the farmers? Is it better to go to industry or is it better to help people change their eating behavior? How will we, based on our priorities and our passion, focus our work so that we really get the best returns and we can reduce the human and the ecological damage from unnecessary water conflicts? Those of us who are working in this sector need to be thinking deeply about how to maximize our impact because water management, reducing conflict, and balancing our fragile ecosystems is going to be crucial work for the country’s future. There will be no economic growth, no prosperity, and no peace without this.

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