"Water is an economic good - for example, agriculture, industry or hotels and other establishments that have water needs for reasons of business. It is a social good - when you see it in terms of sanitation, fire fighting etc. Drinking water, on the other hand, is a fundamental human right," says Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India, member of the Citizens for Civil Society, Honorary Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and noted author of several books on water issues.

The Cauvery delta in the Thanjavur district, once among the most productive agrarian economies in the country, is now reeling under the combined effects of an acrimonious dispute with Karnataka over the waters of the river, and failed monsoons for three consecutive years. The importance of water is all the more clear from the perspectives of both participants and observers to what is essentially a manmade situation. What, then, does the future hold for agriculture, possibly the most dependent of all occupations, on water?

Says Dr.R.Sakthivadivel, International Water Management Institute, "Farmers don’t have an enabling environment. Supply is so erratic. When he needs water for the kuruvai crop in July, he gets it sometime in September-October. He is told he will be supplied water for 15 days but the water lasts only for 4-5. So they grab water when it becomes available. What else can he do?"

Says L.K.S. Murthy, a traditional agriculturist with medium-sized holdings in the Assikadu village of the Mayiladuthurai district, "Innovative cultivation can only mean saving water. Drip irrigation is one option but it requires large scale investment. Trial and error take time in farming. Only the government has the kind of money that it takes to experiment. We are barely surviving as it is. If drip irrigation is workable, should not the experiments be starting now? And not after five years, when we are totally out of water even from the subsoil. Sprinklers are another option. We may have to devise other crops but which ones? Paddy and sugarcane are simply too water intensive but the soil and weather here are suited only to these too crops on a commercial scale."

Says Ganesh Pangare, CEO, World Water Institute, "What we really need to do is put the farmer first. We have actually forgotten how. The 44,000 crore subsidy on fertilizers is benefiting the companies manufacturing them, not the farmer. There is inequity in the irrigation system where the upstream farmer denies the share due to the downstream farmer - in traditional systems, the first rights belonged to the downstream agriculturist. We have already got an installed capacity of large dams. What can we do? Dump it? At the end of the day what the farmer needs is water. Efficiency in use is a must. An asset has been created, we have to maximise utilisation. For the last twenty years, not a rupee has gone into the operation and maintenance of irrigation systems."

Pangare continues, "Which systems should we follow? The Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) systems have many good things about them - they have not been thrust upon us by the ADB or the World Bank or MNCs or multilateral donors. Andhra Pradesh is the first state in India to bring in legislation on PIMs. The system requires farmers to be involved at every step. Anna Hazare says, ‘When water runs, make it walk. When water walks, make it sit.’ Many farmers don’t pay water tax. We need to recover money atleast for Operations and Maintenance. Entire irrigation budgets go towards the payment of salaries. Policing doesn’t work in India. The Water Users Associations act as peer groups and result in social restraint. The land between farms is a no man’s land - nobody wants to pay to put up an irrigation system there. Also, it’s not that they don’t want to pay - they need adequate and reliable supply of water. Atleast the kharif crop has to be protected. His (the farmer’s) basic food needs are taken care of. Market economies through the rabi crop come much later. Also, the Irrigation Reform Act has the clause of recall. When 2/3rd majority vote to recall an association chief, he has to go. Over 1,000 PIM chiefs have been recalled in AP (of a total of about ten thousand). It is a very good option. Otherwise, they are comfortable in their gaddi for five years and they have no fear of their electorate till the next election. How to achieve water discipline? The land of Maharashtra has become diabetic. 2.5% of the land - now under sugarcane cultivation - consumes 70% of the water. There has to be some water for all."

Whether PIMs can be replicated in Tamilnadu is an question that remains unanswered as of now. Also, the Cauvery is so well utilized that its drainage channel, the Coleroon, is always dry. The river’s chief tributaries are the Bhavani, Amravathi and Noyal. Part of the reason the Thanjavur delta and the state itself is coping with this year’s drought, albeit with difficulty and mixed results, is that in terms of social infrastructure, Tamilnadu stands second in India. The total dynamic ground water resource in TN is estimated to be around 27,346 mcm/year (million cubic metres). There is also 100% village electrification.

Incidentally, Ramaswamy Iyer sounds the following cautionary note to the idea of PIMs, "The concept did not come out of far-sighted or large-hearted thinking. The projects were already built in a non-participatory manner. The government realized that it couldn’t run them so it handed over control. Or it appeared to. It was not a great change of heart, just a realization of the inevitable - they need funds they don’t possess for operations and maintenance. Most State coffers are bankrupt. But they are still not willing to part with power. The users should be given total freedom to decide the price and distribution. This is not so. The technocracy and the bureaucracy very much prevails. There has been only a reluctant and partial transfer of power. Secondly, there has been no contractual deal between the parties. The farmers have to be responsible and pay dues but the State has no similiar responsibility to deliver water. At the local level, power equations are based on social structure and realities. Politicization happens. The system has many very good qualities. But its shortcomings have to be understood. Bureaucrats are constantly under pressure - be positive, why are you always nitpicking at the negative points?"

There are other mitigating factors that are not always immediately visible. A environmental case study by the Global Information Systems portal says that sand mining and brickwork in the Cauvery flood plain are causing a major environmental problem in the area. During field visits it was noticed that the extensive sand mining in river Coleroon made the riverbed uneven nearer to the border of banks and the middle portion of river. All along the Coleroon river, particularly within the riverbed, a number of semicircular and rectangular pits of pools of water were noticed. Sand mining in the Coleroon river near Melur had brought loss of the southern embankment. The sand removal at the foot of the highways bridge near Srirangam had brought the hard rock to the surface.

The study cautions that the river may tend to erode the substratum and pose danger to the bridge. Overall, the extensive sand mining activities in the riverbed have exposed the channel bed, accelerating the erosion and increasing the suspended materials in the downflow. The sand mining in the side of embankment increased erosion and posed danger of embankment failure during floods. The intensive sand mining in both riverbed and flood plain zone is reducing the thickness of aquifer sand, adversely affecting the groundwater recharge and infiltration in an already vulnerable region.

"There are no substitutes for water. The State has a human rights responsibility. If water supply is privatized and the contracted party fails, the responsibility reverts to the State."
At a recent workshop on water issues organized by the Asian Development Bank, speakers from the other side of fence - notably the ADB and organizations such as Global Governance - offered privatization of water supplies as the panacea to most water problems. But, says Iyer, "Ancient rights don’t recognize proprietary rights but user rights. Water is now the imminent domain of the State - even community initiatives sometimes run counter to Indian legislation - for instance, Rajendra Singh was told what he was doing was illegal. So far conflict has been avoided only because good sense has prevailed. Water cannot be commodified like telecom or electricity. There are no substitutes for water. The State has a human rights responsibility. If water supply is privatized and the contracted party fails, the responsibility reverts to the State. Water is a natural and finite resource. The distinction between privatization of supply, and sources of water, is not always possible. What if the Kumars build a dam across the part of Maheshwar that has been sold to them? Someone who is allowed to dig a borewell does acquire some control over the aquifer source. Coke was given a license to put up a soft drink plant in Plachimada but look what happened - water source of the entire region has been threatened."

In this context, and excerpt on groundwater depletion from a paper by David Seckler and Upali Amarasinghe titled ‘Water Supply and Demand, 1995 to 2025 : Water Scarcity and Major Issues’ is significant:

"An area of intensive competition for water and rapidly increasing water scarcity is the use of ground water in irrigation. In terms of impact on food production, one of the greatest technological innovations in irrigation has been the development of the small-scale pump. Tens of millions of small pumps are currently drawing water our of aquifers to irrigate crops. Over one half of the irrigated area in India is now supplied by groundwater. Because pump irrigation supplies water on demand, yields from pump irrigation can be two to three times those of canal irrigation. One third or more of India’s food production depends on these humble devices and the aquifers that feed them. Much the same is true in other arid countries."

"Yet, almost everywhere in the world, groundwater tables in areas that depend on irrigation from groundwater are falling at alarming rates. In many of the most pump intensive areas of India and Pakistan, water tables are falling at the rate of 2 to 3 metres per year. This is not surprising when one considers that the evaporation losses of a typical crop is around 0.5m of depth and the yield of water in an aquifer is about 0.1m per meter of depth. Without recharge, groundwater tables would fall by about 5 m per crop per year. Most of these areas receive sufficient average rainfall to recharge aquifers, but most of the rainfall goes to runoff, not to recharge. We desperately need to change that equation.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that the food security of India, Pakistan, China and many other countries in 2025 will largely depend on how they manage their groundwater problem. Reducing the amount of pump irrigation is no answer; this simply reduces the most productive agriculture. The answer has to be groundwater recharge. But this is not an easy solution. Indeed, to our knowledge, no one has devised a cost-effective way to do it on a large scale. About the only idea that we in IWMI (International Water Management Institute) have been able to think of is to encourage, through subsidies if necessary, flooded paddy (rice) cultivation in lands above the most threatened aquifers in the wet season. Paddy irrigation has high percolation losses and is thus a very inefficient form of irrigation from a traditional point of view. But from the point of view of groundwater recharge, this is just what the doctor ordered. India has been doing precisely this in a 180,000 hectare areas for the past 10 years."