Can science solve our water problems?

The Supreme Court believes it can. In a series of recent directives the Court has recommended scientific solutions to the water problem in the land of Aryabhatta and Ramanujan. Ranjan K Panda points out that it is science which has caused much of the problem and that we must also look at strengthening traditional and cultural solutions to water management

traditional water harvesting system

Early this year, the Supreme Court of India ‘recommended’ the immediate constitution of a committee to look for scientific solutions to the problem of water scarcity. But with the government failing to take the matter seriously, the court decided to get tough. On April 26, 2009 while deciding on a different case, it came down heavily on the government, asking it to work on the issue with clear targets and a set timeframe.

On February 19, 2009, the court issued a ‘recommendation’ even as a two-judge division bench was deciding on a writ petition filed by the Orissa government that sought the court’s directive to the central government for the constitution of a water disputes tribunal to try disputes between Orissa and Andhra Pradesh over water from the Vansadhara river. The court allowed the petition and ordered the central government to constitute a tribunal “within six months”. In addition, the court held that the issue of water scarcity had become so serious that a permanent solution could not be found either in a tribunal or a court of law.

In a separate concurrent judgment, Justice Markandeya Katju held that the government was duty bound to provide water to the people. “The right to get water is a part of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution,” said Justice Katju. He added that people everywhere were plagued by problems of water scarcity. “We don’t have a problem of water. It’s a situation of ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’,” the court said. We have huge glaciers in the north, majestic oceans on three sides and numerous big and small rivers all across the country. Still we face acute water shortages. This is a problem that science can and should solve, the court added. “India has a strong heritage of science… The way out therefore for our nation is to once again turn to the scientific path shown by our ancestors -- the path of Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta, Sushrut and Charak, Ramanujan and Raman,” the court advised. “There is no dearth of eminent scientists in the field who can solve this problem. But they have not been organised and brought together, and not been requested by the central and state governments to do their patriotic and sacred duty to solve this problem, nor given the facilities for this,” the court concluded.

It is in this context that the Supreme Court had earlier ‘suggested’ the constitution of a committee to look for a ‘scientific solution’ to the problem of water scarcity on a ‘war-footing’. It had also advised both central and state governments to give the committee every support, including financial, material and administrative.

The court passed a detailed order on March 26, relating to the water shortage problem in India. The bench issued a notice to the Secretary, Ministry of Science and Technology, asking him to file a counter-affidavit within four weeks, stating what measures had been taken to solve the problem and implement the court’s recommendations.

On April 26, the Supreme Court found the counter-affidavits weak and directed the central government “to forthwith constitute a committee to address the problems referred to in the order dated March 26, 2009, which shall do scientific research on a war footing for solving the water shortage”.

This time, the court was categorical and pointed in its intentions. “The central government is directed to form this committee to address the water shortage problem at the earliest, latest within two months from today. This committee shall have the Secretary, Union Ministry of Science and Technology, as its chairman. Amongst the members of the committee will be the Secretary, Union Ministry of Water Management. The other members of the committee will be scientists specialised in the field of solving water shortage problems, nominated by the chairman of the committee, and they are requested to take help from foreign scientists specialised in this field,” the court ordered.

To ensure that the government did not take the matter lightly, the court proposed that it should regularly monitor the progress of the committee. “This matter will be listed on the second Tuesday possibly of every alternat(e) month. List again on August 11, 2009, on which date a progress report will be submitted before us by the chairman of the committee who is requested to be personally present before us. Thereafter, the case will be listed on October 20, 2009, and so on,” the court said.

Reposing faith in science alone will not solve the water crisis

There can be little disagreement with the fact that millions of Indians face enormous hardships due to water shortages. Or about the court’s observations on the matter, and its ruling that the right to water is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. But there is a certain amount of discomfort with the court’s obsession with the use and capabilities of science. “It is science alone which can solve this problem,” the court said. About this, there is definitely a lot less concurrence.

The court observed that science had taken ancient India to great heights. But it also attributes the causes for the degradation of our water resources to the neglect of science. “However, we subsequently took the unscientific path of superstition and empty rituals, which has led us to disaster,” it said.

The court order does not define what is meant by ‘rituals’ and ‘superstition’; hardcore scientists would include even the act of worshipping the river as ‘mother’ as ‘unscientific’. Although this ‘holy’ consideration has not helped the river conservation cause much, science (not only the abuse of it) too has played a large part in destroying water quality. Indeed, there has been a blind development of science that has negatively affected water quality and quantity whether by polluting natural water sources or causing changes in climate that have a direct bearing on water, or depleting groundwater sources, or tampering with natural water flows.

The impact of such blind and damaging science must be thoroughly examined, and the way scientific committees view the water problem (mostly, and unfortunately, as an ‘engineering’ issue) needs to be challenged. Water has an ecological right to survive. For long, societies and their cultures have respected this right with rituals being the symbols of such a relationship.

The answers lie in traditions too

Science may sometimes bring about miracles. But it is certainly not magic; at least not yet. Science alone may not be able to solve all our water-related problems within a given timeframe, as the court would wish. The court believes that if certain scientific activities -- converting saline water into fresh water, researching methods of harnessing and managing rainwater and flood waters, researching rainwater harvesting and treatment of waste water to make it potable, etc -– are carried out on a war-footing all our problems will go away. That may be true. But for it to succeed we first have to address the factors that cause direct degradation of our water and environment.

If India has a rich science heritage, it also has a ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ of harnessing its natural resources, including water; indeed, every village and every town in India had its own traditional water harvesting techniques. But modern science has treated such traditional knowledge with disdain, and we are paying the price for it.

Even as we look for big, complex and costly science-centric answers, we must re-invent traditional methods of adapting to the situation. Hardcore scientific ways of managing water usually discount community responsibility and ownership, while traditional systems have mostly been community managed and maintained. India needs both -- water-empowered communities with clearly defined rights and responsibilities, and a responsible government that nurtures good water science and adopts a transparent system of water governance.

(Ranjan K Panda is an Orissa-based researcher and writer) 

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009