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Water Conflicts Workshop

Water | Jul 5, 2022

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 around the world, is the management of conflicts around this key resource – water. My first disclaimer is that I am not an expert. 12 years ago, I set up a foundation called Arghyam through which I have been engaged with the water sector. I knew nothing about it before, I know something about it now, but every day I learn more. I have also been involved in a lot of civil society activities over the last 20 years and supported the work of amazing NGOs that do incredible work all around the country. My husband, Nandan Nilekani, has been in the corporate sector for the last 35 years, and that has given me a ringside seat to see how different fora in the world interact on issues like resource management and how the business community is responding to challenges.

So, today I bring you from a perspective from outside, trying to see upstream, non-water sector linkages to how they also impact the conflicts that you are going to be diving deep into, and perhaps to see if we can come at it from many different lenses.

Conflicts Are Opportunities

I think all of us can agree that conflicts are opportunities. Sustainable shifts of paradigm can happen, can emerge from deep conflicts. For example, World War II with its tens of millions of casualties and a deep realignment of world politics, did allow for one thing to happen, which is the engagement of women in the workforce. In the last eight decades, women have taken back more and 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.

So, looking at these conflicts dispassionately with a partly academic, and very humane perspective can really be the first step towards reducing or preventing conflict. Analyzing 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 one day. We have a long way to go though.

Over the past 12 years I’ve seen 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 sometimes 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. So, 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 perspective of ecological and intergenerational justice, people have always thought of water as a valued resource that should not be wasted. ​​So in a sense, we have a lot of rich tradition of being a low water society. 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 urbanization? 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? What would this require?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 visualizations 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.” So, unless we begin to exercise our empathy muscle 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 on earth 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.

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 (released in 2014) 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, mark my words, you 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 liter per capita per day (LPCD) downwards, from 135 to 100 LPCD. They did this because they have found that we don’t need more than 100 liters 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.

People’s eating choices are also making a difference. A recent study attempts to deepen the understanding of the impact of diets on resource use by analyzing the effects of changes in diet on consumptive water use at a country level and at a global level. It first analyzed the impact of modifying diets to fulfill the Dietary Guidelines by the WHO, and then the effect of shifting from animal-based food products like meat to 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%. Now to think about this, the less meat people eat, and the more they care about local, organic, artisanal produce, what impact could it have on water futures?

India’s people and their changing food habits will impact global green water use quite significantly. And 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 maximizing this year’s crop, and more about protecting the crops of future years because they can see the patterns now.

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 signaling, and other incentives that are required to manage water more equitably and perhaps a little more sustainably. The work that Arghyam and its partners have done in Participatory Groundwater Management over the last six years has proven this to us.

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. They are responding and 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. We talk of surveyance and worry about surveyance, but there is such a thing as sousveillance, which means looking up from below. And that can create a very powerful push on the supply side to change behavior and be more publicly accountable. Never forget the power of sousveillance.

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 characterize 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 realize that ecosystems are a critical component of our water cycle — ​​that it’s not just humans alone. That it’s humans and the natural environment together. The third age ultimately is going to have to be a sustainable age.” 

It is absolutely critical to keep learning in order to solve the current conflicts that India is experiencing today. You will need to learn more about people, the environment, about sharing, power structures, cultures, and about the painstaking nitty-gritty of getting people to sit across in dialogue and hammer out solutions. We also need to keep our minds open to new ideas and to believe in the human capacity to innovate. 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 issues 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, have a 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 you who are working in this sector are going to be the most important people in this country, along with our many leaders – because water management, reducing conflict, thinking of future generations, thinking of our fragile ecosystem is going to be the most important work. You cannot have economic growth without doing that. You can not bring prosperity without doing that. You cannot have peace without doing that.

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