In the last few decades, human knowledge on river systems all over the world has been constantly growing, with close links between theoretical and applied research. The recent developments in water systems science and principles for its management are so fundamental that the transformation has received the status of an emerging paradigm shift specially with the growing recognition of the water needs for maintaining the ecosystem services is concerned (Falkenmark and Rockstrom, 2005). Water allocation is not any more a matter of addressing competing consumptive uses. The new observations and knowledge have led to significant policy changes in Australia, USA, the EU, and South Africa.
However, the case of India, as much of most erstwhile colonies, is distinguished by a not so clear link between the recent developments in water systems science and the practice in real life. This has led to projects being designed and assessed with a knowledge base that did not address many external criticisms and thus, did not evolve with time. A look at the citation pattern of important governmental reports from the region would indicate the presence of this crucial gap. It may be that in the post-colonial institutional set up for water management, by design or otherwise, open professional criticisms, so much needed for the growth of water science anywhere, were overpowered by the commitment to institutional hierarchy. Thus, vital professional criticisms were often not articulated, lest they got interpreted as non-compliance with institutional hierarchy. This is a characteristic of most ex-colonies and in this context Wescoat (2000:394) observed that:
The obvious results have been serious restrictions on the internal mechanisms for the growth of knowledge or the ability to locate or generate new knowledge on water systems related to the social and environmental dimensions. The large part of the researchers remain satisfied with publishing rather marginal papers in marginal journals. Secondly, even when the knowledge front is pushed forward by independent scientific research, the inevitable critical elements involved do not receive any attention. Thus, no engagement is made with critical viewpoints, probably because they may threaten the status-quo.
One important example of this type of cognitive stagnation is the absence of any refinement in the official process for project appraisal and assessment, in particular in the water sector. It is not to say that the region has no independent professional doing high quality research on water systems. However, the scope of such activities is in need of substantial expansion and their knowledge links with the governmental structure need to be liberalized (see for example Goswami, et al., 2005). Further, the difficult access to or official restrictions imposed on the open availability of detailed hydrological data, particularly on the international rivers like the Ganges have acted as obstructions to research and the growth of high quality scientific knowledge on the water systems of South Asia. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development Plan (NCIWRDP, 1999:370) in India was unable to get all the necessary hydrological data and observed that:
"the secrecy maintained about water resources data for some of the basins is not only highly detrimental but is also counter productive. Hydrological data of all the basins need to be made available to the public on demand".
As a result of such isolation from research, the practical management of water systems have got detached from the ongoing forward movement of interdisciplinary knowledge, which has made great progress in the last two or three decades. The process of integration of the various disciplines related to water by itself is a very complex process as described by Falkenmark (2004) in connection with the initiative called âHydrology for Environment, Life and Policyâ (HELP). The process of induction of new interdisciplinary knowledge in the practice of water systems management in South Asia is even more difficult due to the externalization of the critical elements of the emerging knowledge base.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, much of the easily available environmental publications in South Asia are made by NGOs. Excepting for a few cases, for instance, like the study of pesticide contents of soft drinks (Narain, et al. 2006), there is a tendency to publish unfounded sensational matters, without adequate background research. Such reports get wide exposure in the media. Secondly, much of the high quality research publications on water systems of South Asia are made in journals published from the industrialized countries. The governmental departments, NGOs as well as many research organisations here have very limited access to such literature.
Among the various critical research publications on water systems management published in South Asia that have made a mark on water projects in the region, example can be taken of the systematic review of the River Link Project of India as presented by Alagh et al (2006), analysis of the Nepal-India water relation by Gyawali (2000) or the cautionary analysis of the Polavaram irrigation project in India by Gujja et al. (2006a) or the Kalabagh project in Pakistan by Khan (undated). A serious engagement of the government engineers and the independent water professionals could make fundamental contributions in facilitating transfer of new knowledge from researchers to practitioners. It is in this background of a very crucial disconnect between the ongoing transformations in the conceptual frameworks on water systems management and the actual practices in water administration, that approach to a new research agenda in South Asia should be placed.. It is important to recognize that the potential for such a research to be effective is rather limited.