The future of drinking water in Nagaland
‘It would appear that water as a commercial good has replaced the State’s obligation to ensure availability to the community of basic minimum quantities of affordable water’ - Wilfred D’ Costa‘Water promises to be the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th century: The precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations’ - Fortune‘Global crisis in water claims more lives through diseases than any war claims through guns - UN
If you have been going to wedding parties for the last 25 years or so, you might have noticed many changes, one of which is the way you are served drinking water. Now, you pick mineral water bottles. That would have been unimaginable quarter of a century ago when water was served from water filters and jugs and you drank from metal cups. It is more convenient for the host to serve bottled water than to boil. To serve water in metal cups is also passé. But why I draw your attention to the way water is served at wedding parties is to use it as an illustration to ‘the great water debate’ that is going on in the wider world: the commercialization of water; an example being the fact that drinking water is becoming increasingly bottled. Activists argue that water is a basic human need; access to safe drinking water is a human right and should not be a ‘good’ that only some people can afford to buy.
If you are an average Joe living in Kohima, you probably have felt the pinch of having to pay for water not just for drinking but even to flush your toilet. Nothing’s for free anymore. A friend remarked that someday, we have to even buy air to breath. In a way, we do. Air Conditioners. Nagaland is blessed with beautiful fresh water springs and rivers, more than sufficient to meet every Naga’s water needs. In many places, there’s no need to treat or pump but only to connect pipes and share (thank goodness, gravitation is still free). Some villages do have a good water supply system and each khel has community water taps where crystal clear water flows 24x7. I once commented to a villager that if it were in Kohima, money is flowing down such tap every minute. But not just Kohima, many of the growing towns in Nagaland are facing water shortage. The problem will only become bigger.
The modus operandi of our government is firefighting. It requires a situation to reach crisis level to jolt the government into action. And the solution is usually whitewashing the surface. Send a tanker or two in the worst affected areas during the driest month. There is no proper planning for water supply system or the result of which we are yet to see. Those whose decisions matter do not feel the pinch. They can flush-wash their cars every morning while their neighbors have never experienced the ‘luxury’ of ‘running water’ in their kitchens. Our situation is complicated by our customary laws. What was meant to protect us from exploitation from outsiders becomes our own bondage when it comes to sharing of water. Water is considered as a common good but is privately owned. And love for our neighbor (e.g. by sharing water) is a dying virtue in our society. In India, right to property is not absolute and it is not included in the fundamental rights. For the common good, the government has the authority to acquire water sources for common good. But that doesn’t seem practicable. What should be the way out?
Community based water management is an option. We have communitisation of public institutions in Nagaland. But it has been observed that devolution of power to communities is not accompanied by allocation of resources. The resources continue to lie with the government. It creates a conflict by forming a parallel community authority with the existing government authority. Convergence has not taken place well. Or community leaders collude with government officials in corruption. The weakness of the government is taken advantage of by the private sector. But giving free hand to the private in delivering public good like water supply is a worse option. For example, in Kohima, the price of water rises according to the whims and fancy of the water tanker boys. It is not equitable and pushes the poor out of access to safe drinking water.
How do we make community based water management work? The rights and needs of the landowners and locals need to be taken into account from the conception of planning. The communities need to be empowered, not only in name, but with resources. The government should play the role of providing expertise in knowledge and supportive supervision. In a collection of essays called ‘Water Democracy: Reclaiming public water in Asia’, several case studies were presented from all over Asia on the title. According to the publication, democratization and not privatization is the way out. One of the success stories is from Tamil Nadu. In a village, there was acute water crisis: Ground water was 1200 feet deep and wells were all dry. Illegal tapping of water was common and people do not pay their taxes on time. The villagers came up with a detailed plan. They held scores of meetings in a year involving all sections of the society and emphasizing on the need for participation and cooperation from all. They sought the expertise of the engineers of the State water agency. Everyone had to change the way things are done in order to solve the water problem. The villagers created 32 water storage structures by deepening, repairing and constructing dams. To increase vegetation cover to attract rain and raise water table, they planted over 7000 tree saplings. They were planted by children in their names, names of their pets and grandparents. Encroachments on the water storage areas were removed. Also with consensus of all, illegal tapping of water was stopped. Water was equally distributed to all villagers and on time. The quality of water was good and complaints were redressed promptly. This instilled confidence among the villagers. The results were evident within a short time: the water table rose from 1200 to 800 feet. The trees attracted birds and changed the biological profile of the village. The villagers were satisfied with the transparency and equal distribution of quality water in their community. The collection of annual taxes reached 100%. The village council received a State award. This was not a one-off case but such community based water management was carried out in 153 villages in 29 of 30 districts in Tamil Nadu. This was a part of a unique process known as the ‘democratisation of water management’ which was launched by the State water agency.
More people die from diseases due to water shortage than by the barrel of a gun. Diarrhea and respiratory tract infections are the most common causes of child deaths in India. UNICEF says that hand washing with soap especially after contact with excreta can reduce diarrheal diseases and respiratory diseases by 40% and 30% respectively. It is useless to talk about sanitation without adequate and quality water supply. ‘Water wars’ are on the rise and conflicts across communities and social classes will only increase. Experts say that what oil was to the last century, and so will be the struggle for water in the future.
In places like Kohima, water problem has reached crisis level. Ground water is not a sustainable method of water supply. With urbanization, streams and rivers are becoming polluted. Bottled water is not only costly but plastic pollutes the environment. Loss of forest cover poses a threat of drought-like situations and lowering of water table. Irrigation and therefore food production will be affected. So, the future of drinking water can head in two directions: either we plan ahead for sustainable, equitable, affordable, and quality water supply; or prepare ourselves to fight ‘water wars’.