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India’s Water Future


The World Bank has recently (25.06.05) released a draft report on “India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future.”

By reducing water to an “economy” and further reducing the water economy to “a market economy”, the World Bank’s worldview makes water privatization and commodification inevitable. In this worldview there is no “water ecology”, no “water culture”, no “water democracy”.

In fact, dismantling structures of democracy, the public good, ecological sustainability, and protection of the water commons and defense of community rights is the prime objective of the World Bank approach. According to the World Bank, “the major liability is a public water sector”. For people, defense of the public water sector is necessary for the defense of people’s water rights. A public water sector includes both the community-managed systems of self-provisioning, as well as the public utilities like municipal water supply and irrigation. In spite of privatisation having failed in country after country, and in spite of community-based approaches having been successful in different parts of India, the World Bank is aggressively pushing for water privatisation, the dismantling of community rights, and the enclosure of the water commons.

The proposal is to replace community rights and the common good with individual rights and the private interest. Under conditions of inequality, this implies that powerful individuals get exclusive access to the water commons through water markets. In effect the Bank would like water monopolies instead of water democracy. In the case of irrigation, the World Bank report states, “Here an approach, which begins with acknowledgement of and respect for the private interests of individual farmers will be for more successful than approaches which resort to command and control, or ones based on a communitarian ideal.”

What the Bank refers to as “command and control” is public services. Its own “command and control” reform process is, however, the real problem for the people of India. The report also clearly states its vision for the future, “Large members of people will move from the informal, self-providing, water economy into the formal service sector.”

The self-organized community based water systems are the backbone of India’s water democracy and water culture. By deliberately destroying community-based systems, the World Bank is ensuring total dependence of people on water markets controlled by water corporations and water mafias.

This is the equivalent of the Seed Act of 2004, which aims at preventing farmers from saving their own traditional seeds, thus forcing them to buy patented, genetically engineered or hybrid seeds every year.

When seeds are a community resource, shared, saved and exchanged in a biodiversity commons, farmers have access to quality seeds at zero cost, biodiversity is conserved and quality food with high nutrition is produced. When seeds are corporate property, and a commodity farmer must buy each year, farmers are pushed into debt and suicides, biodiversity disappears and malnutrition, hunger and poverty grow. The market grows, the farmers die.

What happens with seed happens with water. When the water commons are destroyed, and community managed self-provisioning structures dismantled, a common resource accessible to all at zero cost disappears. People are forced into the water market. The poor, the marginalized get excluded. The water market grows; people’s water rights are extinguished, the water commons is enclosed.

The World Bank’s myopic focus on water markets portrays the scarcity imposed on the poor as “growth”. Water does not exist in the Bank’s vision, nor do people with inalienable, fundamental rights to water. All that exists is markets. Markets can grow while water resources shrink. Corporate profits can grow, while people’s water rights shrink.

Examples of the World Bank’s ontological confusion are its obsession to shift from supply management to demand management and its promotion of limitless consumption of water through 24 x 7 schemes in the context of limited water supplies and a deepening water crisis. By ignoring the ecological and hydrological limits of water availability and allowing water access and water distribution to be driven by insatiable markets, the Bank is prescribing a deepening of the water crisis and a growing polarization in access the water. The Bank’s future vision is the vision for a hydro-apartheid.

It is also a vision that promotes non-sustainability. In an era when the high ecological and social costs of large dams are well known, the Bank promotes large dams. Its Madhya Pradesh water sector loan is supporting the Ken-Betwa link, the first link in the $200 billion River Linking Project based on large dams, and long distance canals, which reroute rivers from rural areas to urban and industrial centres where water markets can be easily established because of higher purchasing power.

The Bank is using fraudulent figures like per capita storage to push its agenda for large dams. “Whereas arid rich countries (such as the U.S. and Australia) have built over 5000 cubic meters of water storage per capita, and middle income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco, and China can store about 1000 cubic meters per capita, India’s dams can store only 200 cubic meters per capita. These figures are misleading because they leave out the millions of tanks and ponds managed by communities, which store more water than the dams and serve people in a more decentralized and democratic way. If large dams have displaced 40 million people since independence a five-fold increase in dam storage will mean the displacement of 200 million, i.e. a fifth of India’s population.

Since neither nature, nor communities exist in the World Bank’s vision, the social and ecological costs of its recipes are totally discounted. And to push its agenda of giant corporations controlling India’s water through gigantic water projects, the Bank transforms its failures into successes.

It cites the Sonia Vihar Plant, which has been privatized to the Suez Corporation as a success, which is serving the people of Delhi. However, not a drop of water has reached Delhi citizens. The Sonia Vihar has not been functioning because it is based on bringing Ganga water from Tehri Dam, 300 kms away, and Uttar Pradesh has refused to divert Ganga water from its farmers for corporate water markets in Delhi. The contract for the Sonia Vihar Plant is based on the public utility, Delhi Jal Board, providing free water and electricity to Suez, and paying a fine of Rs. 50,000 a day if bulk supply is not provided. Failures thus generate corporate profits.

Similarly, the Veeranam project, which was to bring water 235 kms from Chennai, has totally failed. It is cited by the World Bank as another success story.

In our report “Financing the Water Crisis: World Bank, International Aid Agencies and Water Privatisation”, we have shown how the Bank has created India’s water crisis and how its water sector reform conditionalities imposing privatisation will leave our water culture in ruins, our water ecology disrupted, and our communities disenfranchised.

We need to build water democracy, not water markets. We need to defend the rights of communities, not corporations. We need to conserve water, not consume and destroy it. We need to design India’s water future on the basis of people’s vision, not that of the World Bank.

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