Reframing Wicked Water Problems From An Eco-centric Perspective Under Climate Change Uncertainties

Concept note prepared by Dipak Gyawali (Academician, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology & former Chair, Nepal Water Conservation Foundation & former Minister of Water Resources of Nepal) based on discussions at the Udaipur World Water Conclave on 08-10 December 2022 and revised following helpful comments by many reviewers. Gyawali is also ‘Commissioner for mountains’ of the Peoples World Commission on Flood and Droughts (PWCFD) formalized by the Conclave.

Feb. 27, 2024, 8:46 a.m.

Why the Re-thinking?

The answer is simple: past approaches of conventional water resources development have led to misuse and the current crisis. A complete rethinking of our current disastrous water management practices (Ahmed, Dixit and Nandy (1999). Water, Power and People: A South Asian Manifesto on the Politics and Knowledge of Water. Kathmandu: WATER NEPAL vol. 7 no. 1) is necessary to chart a new, more wholesome pathway forward.

The statement “Water if Life” invites a complacent shrug from business-as-usual folks for its banality but it invokes a sense of awe from those who are worried about its increasing degradation from myopic mismanagement of at least the last half century. The disruptive consequence of this crisis – fueled by deified lifestyles favouring short-term over-consumption of water and allied resources, with benefits accruing to the very few while the costs of such un-Gandhian over-consumption are externalized to the unsuspecting poor and the voiceless environment, as well as by political systems favouring the few against the many – spares very few societies across the globe. Compounding the woes stemming from water’s mal-development is climate change that is exacerbating the problem by assuring increasing levels of uncertainty regarding its availability and quality. The future as predictable replication of the past is becoming increasingly untenable; and adopting a business-as-usual attitude is an invitation to avoidable disaster.

Just as the statement “Water is Life” is an undeniable truism, so is the statement “Water permeates Everything”, from the physical sphere to that of socio-environmental enterprises both human and non-human. That ubiquity in varying degrees is what determines the very nature and existence of all such systems. (See Box 1.1 in IUCN’s Negotiate.) Equally, this means that water is not a subject but the focal point where all subjects, all academic disciplines from hard physical to soft social sciences intersect. While this fact is well appreciated in traditional water systems across various eco-systems, it is less so in “modern” water management practices where agencies working is silos foist narrowly conceived solutions (mostly bad civil engineering and even worse neo-liberal economics) to the detriment of other interlinked enterprises dependent on the water system being intervened into.

The diversity of co-dependent water eco-systems and social systems that have co-evolved to survive within such eco-systems means that water challenges too are unique to those systems. Monistic solutions framed in the confines of narrow silos of national and international official agencies need to be replaced by those arising from more pluralist perspectives following from constructive engagements between contending standpoints. Broadly speaking, those differences, from the village commons to national and international ones, stem from the differing stances of three primary social solidarities that frame water problems differently. Bureaucratic hierarchism favours procedural means of laws and guidelines of EIAs etc. that favour neat but rigid solutions. Market individualism opts for immediate and

substantive gains, efficient but often short-term. And activist civic egalitarianism rallies around issues of equity and justice that are often sidelined (or given mere lip-service to) by markets and bureaucracies. Only a policy terrain that is sufficiently democratic – where all these three vastly differing voices are not only heard but also constructively responded to – would be able to produce sustainable solutions (see Box 2.1 in IUCN’s Negotiate). This essay is an attempt to explore how such a rethinking of water’s interlinked totality in differently stressed ecosystems across the globe might contribute towards such a more pluralistic, democratic goal.

Climate Problem IS Water Problem

At the 2022 November COP27 in Egypt, the climate community finally came to accepting that climate change impacts cannot be managed without simultaneously addressing water problems that ensue from the climate crisis. While welcome and long overdue, this change in narrative poses many challenges before the global water community that had so far been content to follow the lead taken by the energy community. While the climate crisis was created by the energy sector (burning too much fossil fuel since the Industrial Revolution), society experiences its impact through the medium of water. It is not only too much or too little water at the wrong time and place but also changes in crops, vegetation and forests as well as wildlife and migration of disease vectors to habitats that were previously free from it.

The energy community has defined the solutions to the climate crisis as one of mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to keep average global temperature below 1.50C (it is now realized as an impossible target since, with global oil politics being what it is especially following the Ukraine crisis in Europe, even 20C might be a mirage), and everyone else adapting to the consequences that are sure to follow nevertheless. It saw future water concerns as mainly an adaptation question where communities were to cope with the extreme events of floods and droughts – which are expected to increase in both intensity and frequency due to global warming – as best they can. That such a fatalistic approach is wrong has been highlighted by UN World Water Assessment WWAP’s 2020 report on water and climate change: conservation agriculture using nature-based solutions, wetlands protection as well as wastewater treatment and nutrient recovery are significant GHG mitigation measures as well that should (together with many more such issues) be the active concerns of the water community.

The concept of average global temperature rise is useful for scientific studies but meaningless for practical decision-making. No one steps into a river of “average” depth or eats an “average” meal: one eats a light, heavy, tasty or unsavory meal. Similarly, climate impact on water is locale specific with global average being near meaningless for practical purposes: what matters are extreme conditions that are actually experienced. It is more useful to think of our atmosphere as a glass kettle with water on a stove. In pre-industrial times, with its low heat content, it was akin to a simmering kettle with water (air currents) flowing in a gentle convection of established pattern (seasons). Today, with much higher heat energy trapped within it, atmospheric wind movement is similar to violent ebullience in the kettle with airstream patterns swinging wildly to areas not normally on its path.

An example would be the August 2022 floods in normally semi-arid parts of Pakistan that resulted from almost 400% more rain than average. Similarly, it was textbook truism that Kathmandu valley receives 80% of its average 1200mm per annum precipitation in the four monsoon months June to September and 20% from winter westerlies in December-January. This year, winter precipitation has failed badly, a disaster that will not only leave mountain springs much drier and groundwater tables much lower in the coming hot months of April-May but also loss of soil moisture will mean more forest fires this spring and failed harvest of non-irrigated crops such as maize, millet and mustard. And this anomaly of failure of the winter rains has been increasing since 2000 with serious consequences for agriculture, human health as well as wildlife.

What Kind of Water?

Like climate change, water and energy are also what are called “wicked problems” where most protagonists in the debate cannot agree, let alone on solutions, even on what the real problem is, since each come with their own definition of what it is or is not. Water, like energy or climate change or for that matter urban congestion, are not “subjects”: rather they are the focal point where many subjects – from hard engineering, geology and meteorology to soft social sciences of law, economics, social anthropology and even literature and spirituality – intersect. Solutions proffered from the perspective of one discipline (and agencies dominated by one such discipline) can clash with others that see severe problems with what is proposed. This is especially true where official water agencies (hydrocracies) are heavily dominated by construction-focused engineering that tend to filter out concerns of others, resulting in impasse at best and conflicts at worst.

Now, with these natural and social complexities in mind, how do we face the challenge of uncertainties behind increasing frequency and intensity of floods and droughts? It is becoming apparent that it has to start from a complete re-thinking of what water management is all about in the age of climate change. Increasing temperatures are bringing about desiccation crippling non-irrigated agriculture and natural wildlife; changing wind patterns are behind much of the increases in floods and droughts; and both are also changing microbial life with appearance of new disease vectors. Under these new stresses, how do we understand water which has traditionally been approached by official agencies as surface waters in rivers and lakes, and less overtly groundwater, but not water in its totality.

A way to re-conceptualize water is to see it in terms of its seven colours that captures the totality of the hydro-meteorological cycle, and to understand how climate change affects each one of those colours in its own specific way.

➢ White Water: this is atmospheric moisture invisible as humidity and visible in clouds and fog, but also in what are called ‘sky rivers’ that are long bands of vapour arising from oceanic evaporation that can each carry more water than the average flow of the water at the mouth of the Mississippi river. When it makes landfall as with the summer monsoon or winter westerlies in Asia, it precipitates as rain or snow. However, with global warming accompanying climate change, the atmosphere and its sky rivers carry more water moisture and precipitate more violently as cloud bursts. Alternatively, they can swing from their normal path in an atmosphere more turbulent than before, depriving water in areas that expected them and causing drought or dumping the water in areas that never expected them as in the Pakistan floods during the monsoon of 2022. Although White Water is the source of all other forms of freshwater, it is studied insufficiently by meteorology which is underfunded and understaffed in comparison with heavily funded irrigation or hydropower agencies.

➢ Green Water: this is the first destination of precipitated White Water, which is transformed into soil moisture. Some of it evaporates right back to become White Water that wind currents transport and precipitate in another area; some seep deep into the ground and remain as groundwater aquifers some of which backflows into riparian rivers as the primary flow during non-rainy months; and what does not evaporate flows into streams, rivers and lakes. Green Water as soil moisture is estimated to be of almost the same magnitude globally as the totality of Blue Water in rivers and lakes. It is also among the most understudied of waters even though all our forests, wildlife therein, grasslands, traditional animal husbandry as well as non-irrigated agriculture depend upon it, and which suffer the most during soil moisture droughts. One consequence of rising temperatures due to climate change is that desiccation of soil moisture is on the rise, which has led to increasing forest and grassland fires as well as crop failure in dryland agriculture.

➢ Blue Water: which is the most commonly understood form of fresh water, is the surface water in streams, rivers and lakes. Given its concentrated availability in a locale, it has historically been seen as most economic to be extracted for industries, agriculture and domestic use. It is also the most hegemonic of waters sidelining other colours in budgetary terms that has seen the most amount of official attention, national and international, especially in its transboundary aspects for the allocation conflicts it has caused between countries. With it is also associated the most invasive and disruptive of large technologies (big dams) that also have severe impact on freshwater aquatic life. Rivers of Asia and the Middle-East such as the Ganga and Cauvery, the Mekong and the Nile are also “civilizational rivers” with very strong spiritual aspects associated with them. Indeed, with the growing pollution that these rivers are subject to with myopic economic modernization that sees them only for their extractive potential or as drains for wastewater, it is doubtful if they can be cleaned without appealing to their spiritual and aesthetic aspects.

➢ Brown Water: which is groundwater in underground aquifers and the largest in volume of freshwater storage on the planet after polar ice. As with polluted rivers, it is increasingly the most exploited of water resources for drinking water and irrigation in countries of both the Global North and Global South. In natural form, they are also the mainstay of rivers of South Asia during the lean dry season, as they provide the backflow into river channels then when river levels are below nearby piezometric levels. In the mountains, the precipitated water that seeps into them is stored within as groundwater, making mountains real natural “water towers”. When the piezometric line finds a break in the underground geology, Brown Water emerges as Blue Water in springs on which almost all hill hamlets depend for their domestic and agriculture needs. Unfortunately, mostly due to consequences of mal-development such as over-pumping, indiscriminate road-building and tunnel construction for hydropower etc., springs are drying across the Himalaya forcing people to abandon their hamlets and migrate out to cities. (The situation might be similar in other mountain areas of the Global South.) Uncontrolled groundwater overdraft is also a major problem with declining water table in the plains around the world. Brown Water is dependent on natural seepage of Green Water, which is a slow process. When rainfall amount is the same but more intense during a short time period – as seems to be happening with increasing frequency due to climate change – there is more flood surface runoff and less recharge of groundwater.

➢ Grey Water: is primarily wastewater from domestic use ladened mostly with organic pollutants that are easier to clean. Traditionally, in most villages and even old cities, such wastewater was diverted to irrigate gardens growing vegetables where the soil was able to naturally remove the organic matter as fertilizer with the water then recharging the groundwater or merely retained as soil moisture for other trees and plants. However, with the expansion of “modern” sewerage systems, such wastewater is diverted to rivers and lakes leading to their pollution with eutrophication and algal bloom. In a world with increasing water scarcity, there is a growing call to rethink this unsustainable pattern of “development” that not only squanders valuable resource but also pollutes freshwater bodies around the world by banning the use of the word “waste water” and replacing it with “nutrient recycling”.

➢ Black Water: is also wastewater but resulting from industrial production. It is not only ladened with highly toxic chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals but is also much more costly to recycle than Grey Water. When dumped into rivers and lakes it causes irreversible damage to these freshwater bodies with cascading consequences downstream as well as to riparian groundwater. {At the 25th Anniversary celebrations of the Bangalore-based research NGO ATREE in August last year, a researcher discussed her findings about Yellow Water, i.e., Black Water treated minimally and not dumped into freshwater bodies but used for cement mixing so that toxic material could be locked away in rock-like structures of highways and large construction structures.} An alternative way of looking at Black Water is also to see them as rich in resources that can and should be recovered through proper policy incentives to industries. The UN WWAP 2017 wastewater report also sees this “resource recovery” as making a significant contribution to the mitigation aspect of climate change by the water community.

➢ Magenta Water: which is saltwater in the seas and oceans, almost a hundred times more in volume than the ubiquitous Brown, Green and Blue Waters on the planet. A word about the choice of this purplish colour to define ocean water (from which evaporates much of our freshwater White Water): traditionally oceans are described as “the Great Blue Yonder”; but we have already chosen blue for fresh surface water and green for freshwater in soil moisture. Examining the Red-Green-Blue colour wheel from the three primary colours, it is seen that magenta is the colour midway between red (the sun) and blue (freshwater) and opposite to green in soil moisture, and thus felt to be appropriate. Magenta Water, although they support a plethora of sea-based life forms, cannot be used for consumption by land-based life forms. With climate change and rising temperatures, the volume of Magenta Water is increasing both through thermal expansion and polar glacier melt. This is contributing to sea-level rise, drowning of coastal cities, exacerbating ingression of saltwater into adjacent Brown Water thus negatively affecting life in deltas and coastal zones.

Differentiating water by these colours – and linking them singly or in conjunction to their use or misuse in particular locales by specific communities – would allow much more appropriate policy focus in dealing with the stress on specific water bodies from climate change impacts as well as mal-development consequences. It would also allow understanding transboundary waters as not just the problems between international boundaries but also between sub-national and disciplinary demarcations. It would allow the appreciation of water stress more broadly, not just as scarcity – and also within scarcity not just aggregate scarcity but scarcity of various types – but also the stress resulting from too much of it in the wrong time and places as well.

Sociology of Water Science & Technology

As indicated earlier in this essay, water and climate change problems are wicked problems, and who practices what kind of water science – experts in state agencies, market players or activist movements – determines the approach to problems, the kinds of questions asked and the answers sought. Each would focus on “facts” that have been ignored by the others. Unlike “tame problems”, wicked problems cannot be solved with conventional knowledge and textbook engineering. They require the generation of uncomfortable knowledge, which is everything that powers that be – whether in state apparatus, market-based companies or in activist campaigns – chose to forget or filter out as too disruptive of their worldviews and comfortable ways of doing business.

Normally, given the hegemony of a construction mentality (as opposed to a water stewardship one) in state agencies, the task of generating such uncomfortable knowledge has been the job of socio-environmental activists and academia sympathetic to them. It is only such knowledge, and the constructive engagement with other ways of organizing, that will force everyone to bring into their consideration facts and values that would remain unacknowledged until political reactions force them to acknowledge them. This pluralistic approach happens often too late after much time, money and efforts of many are already spent pursuing earlier single-minded, monistic solutions. Such positive considerations of uncomfortable knowledge help bring about clumsy solutions, which are solutions not 100% to anyone group’s liking but just enough of it for all of them that would allow for not outright rejection but modified albeit reluctant participation with possibilities for further modifications.

Negotiations between different protagonists to solve the water problem become a “two-level, three-style” game: between national/international versus local levels on the one hand and between actors of state, market and civic movements on the other. Very often, water problems at the local level become invisible to those at the higher levels: the drying up of springs in the Himalaya is rarely appreciated or even acknowledged by hydrocrats in national and international agencies. Similarly, activists operating at the “toad’s eye” level see many problems with what are called “marginalized rivers” that do not find serious place in the agenda of those higher up doing “eagle’s eye” science. For instance, between India and Bangladesh, besides the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Barak, there are over fifty smaller rivers that cross the international boundary but are rarely the subject of joint rivers commissions. The same is the case between Nepal and India with literally hundreds of small rivers and streams that cross from Nepal into Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India, but the focus of discussions is mainly the large rivers such as the Kosi, Gandak, Karnali and Mahakali.

The looming global water crisis is about unbridled consumption exacerbated by climate change consequences. Sadly, development has been defined and politically propagated as growth in consumption, not just of necessities but mostly those of conspicuous nature for prestige and other reasons fueled by market advertising. Many of the environmental battles are precisely around this underlying ethos of conventional development; and in this battle, sadly, one finds socio-environmental activists pitted against the forces of both unbridled market’s commercial globalization and the nation-states that chose to promote them (for revenue generation purposes) to the detriment of social justice. The much-vaunted policy of “public-private partnership” or PPP is really about public concerns being subsumed under private interests. What should replace PPP is PPCP, or “public-private-civic” partnership, which does not marginalize the role of non-market, non-state actors who champion values other than profit or control such as that of cooperation and volunteerism for healthy social life.

There are, thankfully, scientific tools to redress the balance towards PPCP but which are still languishing in policy shadows. Given that water and its secure health are linked to all life processes human and non-human, the nexus approach that brings together the inextricable interlinkages between water, energy and food (plus sub-nexuses of health, finance, environment etc.) is one such emerging method that promises a move towards the interconnectedness of all life processes that environmentalists have championed for long. Concepts of virtual water as well as water and energy footprints are other such tools that, if properly applied via policy means, promise to rein in unchecked consumption by the haves, provide vital resources for survival to the have-nots, and address the water crisis by nudging economies to do more with much less. This is where future social and environmental campaigns will find the tools to further their causes.

Himalayan Challenge

What is being argued above is the need for a pluralized policy terrain (in water, energy, food, social justice, environmental concerns and many more), where not only are all voices – of state agencies, market players and civic movements – given space at the policy table but are also meaningfully responded to by the others. That, in a more perfect democratic world, would allow for a constructive engagement between the three primary social solidarities who would each receive valuable feedback from others with different perspectives, allowing them to modify their proposed solution to the resource crisis and come to a consensus. Such a democratic terrain is needed at all levels of governance from the village commons upwards to national and international platforms.

What does this mean for the manner in which civic movements such as the Peoples’ World Commission on Floods and Droughts (PWCFD) should seek to organize their activities? One is to avoid organizing activities and defining problems based around nation-states: we already have the United Nations for that; and frankly putting Laos with China or Maldives with India does not do justice, not to the smaller countries nor especially to the bigger ones either since it leads to their immense socio-cultural and ecological diversity being averaged out and homogenized to near meaninglessness. How can one speak of China’s or Russia’s or American or India’s water problems? What is there in common between Chennai and Shillong, or Cochin and Jaipur when it comes to water stress and how it can be eco-sensibly addressed?

The other is that, given that water in its six colours presents problems of stress very differently in diverse agro-climatic and geographic zones even within a single country, it is more meaningful to define PWCFD along eco-centric lines. This manner of classification was discussed and adopted by the Udaipur Conclave. It recognized that water problems of semi-arid deserts are very different from deltaic regions; mountains present very different issues on floods and droughts than the plains; and coastal zones suffer from climate change consequences in a manner unimaginable in deep hinterland plateaus. Hence PWCFD’s worldview and reach, which transcends national and international boundaries (important though they are), is being designed around eco-centric zones, i.e. mountains, coastal and deltaic belts, hinterland plateaus, alpine and arctic zones, etc. It is within such zones that constructive engagement must be initiated with respective governments (national and local), administrative entities, academic and civic voices, as well as business and industry players.

An example from the Himalaya – representative of all mountain zones of the world – is instructive to drive home this point. Mountains are the main regions where sky rivers burst with all their fury creating floods. But at the same time, the rain-shadow areas behind a ridge can be suffering from drought. The defining feature of water scarcity in the mountains is the concept of verticality: a village may be able to see a mighty river flowing below it, but given that it is located several hundreds or even a thousand meters above it, that water might as well be on the moon! The problem of water scarcity induced by verticality in the mountains is inextricably nexused with energy, transport, springs location and complicated traditional water rights issues. Similar specific characteristics define water problems in ecozones from the coasts and deltas to the deserts, plains to mountains, and tropics to cold alpine zones. Such a framing with eco-centric concerns fore fronted promises to provide much more scientifically, environmentally and socially meaningful outcomes, and which is what PWCFD hopes to pursue.

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