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You are here: Home | Water resources | Analysis | The powerful get water, the powerless don't: UNDP report

The powerful get water, the powerless don't: UNDP report

By Himanshu Thakkar

The UNDP's annual Human Development Report for 2006 focuses on water and advocates small-scale solutions and efficiency improvements to tackle the global water crisis

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in a report released on November 9, 2006, has said that lack of water is caused by lack of power, rather than by limited resources. "The scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and equality, not in physical availability... There is more than enough water in the world for domestic purposes, for agriculture and for industry. The problem is that some people -- notably the poor -- are systematically excluded from access by their poverty, by their limited legal rights or by public policies."

The UNDP's annual Human Development Report for 2006, that focuses on water, advocates an approach to tackling the global water crisis that is radically different from that advocated by the likes of the World Bank and the Indian government's water resources ministry. Storing water in large centralised reservoirs centralises political power. The benefits of big, capital-intensive water investments tend to be captured by the rich and powerful. "The danger is that the claims of the politically and commercially powerful will take precedence over the claims of the poor and the marginalised," the UNDP warns.

Illustrating the argument with an example from India, the report says: "In water-stressed parts of India, irrigation pumps extract water from aquifers 24 hours a day for wealthy farmers, while neighbouring small holders depend on the vagaries of rain."

Advocates small-scale solutions

The report, titled 'Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis', argues that decentralised, small-scale solutions and efficiency improvements are more likely to reach the poor than centralised reservoirs and canals. "For much of the past hundred years, water shortages in agriculture have been countered by dams and large-scale irrigation works. In the years ahead, the focus will shift decisively to demand management. Getting more crop per drop, rather than more water to the fields, is becoming the central concern in public policy debates."

This should open the eyes of India's water resources ministry that is dominated by the big dam lobby. The performance of India's irrigation infrastructure, which is the largest in the world, is among the poorest, India's Finance Minister P Chidambaram said in his budget speech last year. There is huge scope for improvements in the performance of existing infrastructure, noted the mid-term appraisal of the Ninth Five-Year Plan. A 10% increase in irrigation efficiency (which would still not be the most efficient performance) could increase irrigated area by 14 million ha, an agenda of about 10 years at the current rate of growth in irrigated areas.

But there is little progress in that direction. On the contrary, due to siltation, about 1.95 billion cubic metres of reservoir capacity are getting silted up each year. This means that two-thirds of the nation's storage capacity is being silted up annually, and nothing is being done about it.

Similarly, if the system of rice intensification (SRI), a new and efficient method of rice cultivation, is adopted in even half the irrigated rice area of around 24 million ha in India, it could help add at least 6 million ha of additional irrigation, at the same time increasing production by at least 50%. This is what the UNDP report advocates when it says more crop per drop should be the approach. Precious little is being done at the national level in India to adopt the SRI, except for paying lip service to it.

Large irrigation projects won't alleviate poverty in an unequal society

Such efforts are also much more likely to help in poverty alleviation, says the UNDP report. Dispelling the myth that canal irrigation necessarily implies poverty alleviation, the report says this is true only where there is greater equity in landholdings. It gives the example of Pakistan (and India) where poverty levels have been found to be as high inside irrigation networks as they are outside them.

Illustrating with an example from India how the benefits of irrigation from large projects are cornered by the powerful, the report says: "In India, about 13% of the population has access to irrigation. Within this group, the richest one-third of farmers receives 73% of the subsidy."

The more than 500 million small farming families are the world's "epicentre of extreme poverty". Most of these poor farmers work marginal, rain-fed lands. They are far more likely to benefit from modest investments in decentralised water storage and supply than from large dams and riverlinking projects, as advocated in India. The UNDP report says that with an initial investment of $ 7 billion, extending small dams to store water and recharge groundwater could increase the value of the country's annual rain-fed crop from $ 36 billion to $ 180 billion. This approach would also help increase employment in rural areas, reducing migration from rural areas and cutting the pressure on urban infrastructure. It would also empower the rural poor and help them gain excess to water.

Climate change will impact water-stressed areas more

The report warns that global warming will transform patterns of water availability. The overwhelming weight of evidence can be summarised in a simple way: "Many of the world's most water-stressed areas will get less water, and water flows will become less predictable and more subject to extreme events." In South Asia, the report predicts that there will be disruptions in monsoon patterns, with potential for heavier rain but fewer rainy days, and more people affected by drought.

Access to water is a right, not an "optional extra"

The hard-hitting report argues that access to 20 litres per capita per day of safe, affordable and clean drinking water is a fundamental right, and governments cannot shirk from the responsibility of providing the same. "Human rights are not optional extras." It estimates that 1.8 million children die each year from diarrhoea (due to lack of access to clean drinking water), and this death toll is six times more than that of armed conflicts. The report says: "No act of terrorism generates economic devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation."

But more water is getting polluted due to lack of effluent treatment from urban areas and industries. The UN report is particularly critical of Delhi in this regard. "Delhi has many of the trappings of a developed country sanitation model," but "less than a fifth of the city's waste is processed before it is dumped into the Yamuna river, transmitting risks downstream."

Privatisation is not the "magic bullet"

The report says that recent examples of spectacular failures in privatisation show that it is no magic bullet: "From Argentina to Bolivia, and from the Philippines to the United States, the conviction that the private sector offers a "magic bullet" for unleashing the equity and efficiency needed to accelerate progress towards water for all has proved to be misplaced."

Lack of sanitation kills five times more people than terrorism or wars

On sanitation to the poor, the report says: "Toilets may seem an unlikely catalyst for human progress -- but the evidence is overwhelming." However, the UNDP's advocacy of flush toilets for all might not be appropriate everywhere, as different solutions may be appropriate depending on the conditions of the area.

There is a lot that Indian planners and policymakers can learn from this landmark report from a mainstream agency. Unfortunately, the Indian government is proceeding down a suicidal path in pushing for commercial and corporate agriculture. There are many indications of this: the increasing number of farmer suicides is one of the clearest. And if another were needed, the UNDP report provides it. "While many governments extol the virtues of small-holder farming, most concentrate scarce public investment on relatively large-scale, capital-intensive commercial farming areas. That approach may be bad for long-run growth and for poverty reduction."

(Himanshu Thakkar is Coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, and Editor of Dams, Rivers & People)

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