Water future is in the hands of an archaic water sector, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by business-as-usual approach.
Cape Town achieved ‘Day Zero’ not too long ago, sending alarm bells ringing across the urbane world to set in order its water management system to avoid being next on the new nomenclature for cities. Despite it being clear that improved water management requires better coordination between demand and supply while keeping a close tab on the source, water scarcity continues to haunt human habitations like never before. No surprise that quite a few cities have already started vying for the second position. With depth to groundwater level having slumped to 93.7 per cent during the last decade, and with most water bodies consigned to unrestricted development, Bangaluru continues to be in the race for such dubious distinction.
Water crises is at the tipping point across the world. In their 2018 study published in Nature Sustainability (1, 51-58), Martina Florke, Christof Schneider and Robert McDonald had projected an urban surface-water deficit of 1,386–6,764 million m³ affecting one-third of the 482 world’s largest cities studied. The study had concluded that by 2050, Jaipur will be the city with the second-largest water deficit in the world, Jodhpur 14th and Chennai 20th. Several other studies point to the fact that a grim water future is staring all across, with its implications cutting across the socio-economic fabric of the society. In light of the emerging scenario(s), a volume on Water Futures of India assessing the status of science and technology in addressing the impending crises evokes interest.
Initiated by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), and supported by two projects at the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR), the edited volume comprises of chapters written by eminent scientists and engineers engaged in water research and practice with an aim to bring to light the status of water science and technology in dealing with the current and emerging water crisis. From water trapped in deep aquifers to that locked in glaciers, and from what flows on the surface to that floating in the atmosphere, science and technology of understanding water in its different forms and settings has grown in leaps and bounds. Seemingly, science is now able to account for each drop of water as it moves through the consumptive systems. Paradoxically, however, the more is known about the universal solvent, its source and flow dynamics, the less is at the systems’ command to resurrect the elixir of life to its pristine glory.
Given its growing demand, moving water on a circular economy pathway has emerged as an opportunity to accelerate and scale-up recent scientific and technological advances supporting greater efficiency across sectors. Within the regulatory market space, the value of existing practices and technologies that enable navigation through the water pathway, the material pathway, and the energy pathway allow a shift from ‘take-consume-dispose’ model to strategies based on demand management, resource diversification, operational optimization and nutrient recovery. However, limiting itself in scope Water Futures of India remains restricted to addressing water challenges from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Covering subjects ranging from groundwater hydraulics, glacier hydrology, desalinization technologies, sediment dynamics, and isotope hydrology, authors suggest several new tools and techniques to address geophysical complexities within the limited experimental domains. The comprehensive list of scientific challenges raised in the opening chapter, however, remain grossly unaddressed. The volume broadly acknowledges such gaps in connecting cutting-edge science to policy and practice, but none of the contributions break free from the confines that public-funded science and technology has come to be identified with. Consequently, in part it reads like a text with the remaining a subject of research, being researched.
Water Futures in India raises questions on the directions and relevance of public-funded research on a subject as critical as water. Why it remains at a distance from addressing societal problems? Why scientific research doesn’t influence policy? Why communicating science with other stakeholders remains limited? While technological developments are urgently needed to improve efficiency of water use across sectors in a circular economy pathway, it needs to be underpinned by a strong policy response to ensure its effectiveness.
Part of the problem lies in water sector being archaic, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by business-as-usual approach. Consequently, it lacks progressive vision and poor adoption of innovative techniques. Given the fact that there is no formal science-policy interface that encourages applied research with the aim of adopting science to improve sector performance, much of the high-end research remains fodder for research journals only. Given large scale spatial and temporal variability of water in the country, role of scientific tools, methodologies and technologies in addressing water issues cannot be undermined.
Water Futures of India falls short of making a desired impact. It is an assortment of randomly selected papers/articles which do not measure up to the expectations from such a volume. Given the fact that not all science produced in the country is applicable on the ground, the volume could have been better designed to position the contents against a futuristic framework. Nonetheless, it has been an ambitious undertaking with a limited shelf life.
Water Futures of India
by P P Majumdar & V M Tiwari (Eds)
IISc Press, Bangaluru
Extent: 481, Unpriced
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)