“I make a plea to everyone present here to come together and speak in one voice to ensure a secure water future for our children…..” The plea was from Prince Charles of Great Britain to the 150 participants from the Asia Pacific region who had come together for a conference on sustainable water future at Jodhpur in Rajasthan in western India.
The Conference for the Asia Pacific Region on ''Towards a Sustainable Water Future - Strategies to address competing claims'' was organized by Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, one of UNICEF’s NGO partners for drought mitigation for several years. UNDP and UNICEF came together to support the conference and share experiences from different countries in the region regarding conflicting and competing demands on water from different sectors and the mechanisms for managing such conflicts. There were representative from national and provincial governments, academics, activists, donors and representatives from NGOs from seven countries – Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Abu Dhabi besides India.
There is no better place in the sub continent than Rajasthan to host such an event: There is intense competition for fresh water resources in the state – primarily between agriculture and for drinking and domestic uses. Water tables continue to fall at unprecedented rates and groundwater is being mined on a totally unsustainable scale in 60% of Rajasthan’s 237 community development blocks; extraction of water from the ground actually exceeds the replenishment, which means the state is digging into fossil water which has been inherited over hundreds of generations. This is threatening water security and the lives of more than ten million children in the state. “Life is not lived in different sectors, remarked Dr Satish Kumar, State Representative of UNICEF’s Field Office in Rajasthan, “and therefore we need to follow an integrated approach to water resource management, giving priority to drinking water”. There was a consensus in the conference that any water policy must have one priority, that is for drinking, because there can be no compromise on this.
“There is enough water for everybody’s need but there is not enough water for everybody’s greed” argued one of the moderators quoting Mahatma Gandhi. The key is to manage demand in an ecologically sustainable manner.
Clearly the urban middle and rich classes cannot practice profligacy in water use and preach to the urban poor and the rural masses to conserve water. Everybody particularly the civil society and NGOs have to play proactive roles in ensuring that water becomes everybody’s business. “This is not a genteel conversation. It is a matter of our life and death” said Sunita Narain from Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)- an organization well known for its contribution to natural resource management- in thUNICEF is working with CSE to create critical awareness in 4800 schools in Rajasthan to audit use and availability of watere concluding session of the conference.
But this dialogue need not take the nature of confrontation with the state or with any particular section of the society. NGOs and civil society need to redefine ways of working with the governments. She challenged the rich to learn from the poor to work towards a water prudent society. The Conference closed with an agenda for action to follow up - for the government, civil society and for the donors. This would mean working towards a coherent water policy, legislation to back up the policy and mechanisms to enforce the policies. The need for recycling and reuse of grey water, rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, efficient systems for minimizing losses in transmission and distribution were agreed upon as the technical options