Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

India-EU come clean on water

Water is one of the great challenges of the 21st century with almost half of the global population expected to live in water-stressed or water-scarce countries by 2025. India will be no exception and its search for a stable supply of water will largely determine its political-socio-economic stability. While looking domestically to solve and resolve water issues in terms of sustainability, efficiency and distribution is necessary, furthering international cooperation on water research, technological development and innovative solutions are equally crucial to achieve both the well-being of its people and the economic growth that brings livelihood.

In the light of this, the recent ‘EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025’ is welcome. The document with an emphasis on bolstering water cooperation through “the Joint Working Group on Water and the EU-India Water Forum, as well as in the context of the India-EU Water Partnership (IEWP)” could not be timelier. It brings the two geographies closer in understanding the priority areas, which are existential, while ensuring continuous support for good governance and coordination with new tools of engagement. Collaboration, coordination and joint actions are the new mantras in the water sector. The recent water cooperation statement comes at the back of a carefully selected water projects, seven of them, under the EU-India Joint Call on Research and Innovation signed in 2019.

The projects emphasise on ‘affordable solutions’ for Indian conditions covering both the rural and the urban areas. With an investment of Euro 40 million or Rs. 323 crores the projects, with a time-line of 4-years, will focus on ‘drinking water, waste water management and real-time monitoring and control system’. The projects will involve the participation of several universities, research labs and both the private sector and the municipalities and will be greatly supported by the transfer of European technologies to India but only after it is tested and customised to Indian needs. The government’s Ganga Rejuvenation plan will also be covered in the innovation cooperation.

Science and technology are now important drivers to India-EU strategic partnership. Both have had great scientific traditions and in recent times there has been a political impetus to reinforce scientific cooperation with an aim to bring high quality and mutually beneficial projects.

The India-EU Water Partnership (IEWP) forum with the twin objective of facilitating EU businesses in India’s water sector and providing a platform for exchange of knowledge that would further involve the EU businesses is a pièce de résistance of the EU-India Strategic Partnership.

The IEWP is rooted in four critical contexts that determine water challenges in India: water as a dwindling resource or the scarcity and its challenges on the agriculture sector; the quality of water and increasing level of pollution; the impact of climate change in particular floods and droughts; and the issues of water governance that requires cooperation and coordination between the centre and the states. These four broad contexts offer opportunities for cooperation in priority areas such as clean drinking water, ground water utilisation, water efficiency, sanitation, Ganga rejuvenation, inland waterways and hydro-powers.

Many of these priority areas are common to India and the EU and their shared experiences can boost both knowledge and management capacities to deal with water challenges. The European experience tells us that water protection and an environmentally sound water infrastructure is not a privilege, but rather a precondition for wealth and prosperity. In the European history of water pollution control, its interconnection with the management of its rivers is well evidenced. The current COVID-19 pandemic is as much a reminder of fewer miracles and more trust on science as it is on the state of cleanliness and clean living. Nothing can be more significant than keeping water sources/bodies free from waterborne diseases. In Europe such diseases rose in several epidemics in the past leading to severe economic downturn. Health services encountered tremendous pressure and treatment was beyond the means of the large population as health costs soared. Calculations showed that sewers as a measure of hygiene together with safe drinking water supply were of less financial burden than the cost of treatment of the sick. This led to a strong political determination and attention on cleaning rivers of its filth and providing clean water to all thereby giving dignity and quality of life to the people. It became a strong pillar of the ‘social contract’ that helped maintain social cohesion. Today, in the midst of the global pandemic and its dire consequences the ‘social contract’ with its re-distributional values still remains the guiding principle of the EU as it seeks to balance austerity and budget discipline with growth and job creation.

In India, over the last half and more decade, possibly one of the most modernising policy approaches of the Modi government has been to raise the profile of rivers. Water is indispensable to governance and development plans, livelihood and healthy life, expressed as sujalam sufalam (water for prosperity) and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It is also a key instrument of regional prosperity and integration. It is not surprising that many of the Modi government’s big-ticket programmes like Swachh Bharat Mission, Swachh Bharat Urban, Swachh Bharat Gramin, Namami Gange Programme, Smart Cities Mission and Inland Navigation are centred on the indispensability of water.

India and Europe are both committed to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UN-Water. The 17 SDGs guide countries as they aim to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequalities and effectively deal with climate change by 2030. Many of the goals (SDG2, SDG3, SDG7, SDG13, SDG15, SDG16 and SDG17) are centred around water, sanitation and hygiene proving yet again the centrality of water. One of the objective of SDG6, in particular, is to ‘expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water and sanitation related activities and programmes.’ Likewise, the UN-Water coordinates UN agencies and programmes dealing with water-related issues, including sanitation and natural disasters. Through this platform, the UN members not only address the cross-cutting nature of water but also ‘maximize system-wide coordinated action and coherence’.

Having achieved common understanding on water challenges it is critical for EU-India to move forward on the following front:

  • Factor entire water resources including rivers, underground water, lakes, and glaciers
  • Determine river basins as units for development planning
  • Improve ‘first and last mile connectivity’ or operational policies
  • Emphasise the food-energy-water nexus
  • Enhance institutional coordination in the water sector
  • Develop and integrate road, rail and river transport

Throughout history water has been crucial to human settlement and economic activities. Ironically the impact of such activities has undermined the linkages between ecology and water. Water fundamentally is a shared resource whether it is between states or within states. International cooperation offers great opportunity to correct some of the past planning and practices and with new knowledge and technological break-through develop a robust water management based on two abiding principles – sustainability and equitability.

(The writer is a leading expert on water and rivers, and is also a Fellow at NMML. Views expressed are his own.)

Image Source: www.iewp.eu