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Book review: Water Security in India: Hope, Despair, and the Challenges of Human Development May 14, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Paula Hanasz

Review of Water Security in India: Hope, Despair, and the Challenges of Human Development, by Vandana Asthana and A. C. Shukla (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Hope and despair are the themes of Water Security in India according to the book’s subtitle. Despair is obvious; there are so many issues and instances of water insecurity, the wicked problem of addressing them all seems overwhelming. But there are flickers of hope in the water security story too. As this book shows, for every flood or drought there is growing environmental consciousness; for all the pollution and spread of water-borne disease there is rapid technological advancement; for every time water-dependent livelihoods are threatened there are improvements in the legislative and institutional governance of water resource, etc.

Water Security in India is a methodical compilation of all these issues and more. It begins by describing water security issues in agriculture and irrigation, then moves on to industrialisation/urbanisation; climate change; governance; privatisation; interstate disputes; and national security. It concludes with suggestions for improving water management practice and instances of progress occurring.9781441115119

Hope and despair were also my feelings upon reading this book. Hope because water security in India is such an important, complex, and largely under-documented set of problems. As the authors rightly point out (on page 17) the “challenges of water access [in South Asia] and its impact on peoples’ security remain scattered in the literature but lack a comprehensive volume on the subject.”

I was hopeful that Water Security in India would rise to the challenge of thoroughly examining the effects that water insecurity (generally understood to mean a lack of adequate quantity and quality of water, or lack of access to it) has on human development in this fascinating country. The relationships between water security and human development is pressing in a region that seems particularly vulnerable to the difficulties of unprecedented population growth, rapid urbanisation, socio-political volatility and, of course, climate change.

But then I despaired because Water Security in India did not rise to this challenge.

It is certainly a comprehensive book. Indeed, there are very few issues it has not touched on. And that means it necessarily is a superficial book; it does not have the room for deep discussion of every tangent and thus it feels like a very long shopping list. I despaired because I had hoped this book would make a significant, original and compelling argument about water security in India; I hoped it would tell me the story of water insecurity and argue for how we can address the challenges this poses. It certainly had the potential to do so – it is, after all, a remarkably well researched book. The authors clearly had no problem finding material from which hundreds of persuasive narratives could be drawn out.

Yet, it tells no cohesive story. Every chapter is a data-dump of information; facts, statistics, maps and graphs (some sourced from Wikipedia – not a good look for a serious academic tome) It feels like reading an encyclopaedia. Informative but not enlightening.

I could not see the proverbial wood for the trees – most details in this book were a distraction from the bigger picture of the looming water crises in India. And therein lies a problem not just for these authors but also for the hydrocrats in South Asia – drawing attention to these problems that can no longer be ignored also means drawing attention to the fact that there are so many problems that the feeling of emergency becomes normalised and thus, ironically, ignored.

Water Security in India also fails to tell the story of any individuals or communities affected by the challenges of human development that are the subject of this book, thereby putting a human face on these complex issues. This is despite the fact that the authors take great pains at the very beginning to establish that their primary goal is to take a people-centric view (in contrast, Cheryl Colopy’s 2012 book Dirty Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis is almost exclusively the human perspective on the same issues; if only this engaging book could somehow be merged with the thoroughly researched and factual Water Security in India then we would truly have the definitive volume on water and human development in the region!)

Most frustratingly, in their enthusiasm to list all these water-related facts, the authors forget to make the link back to their definition of water security (availability of and access to sufficient quantity and quality of water). Certainly, the facts do speak for themselves to some extent. There is definitely mounting evidence for water insecurity in India. But what are the implications of this? What does it mean from the human perspective? How does water (in-)justice play into addressing water security? Does increasing water security for some people mean diminishing it for others? Why is water security of greater concern in a national security sense than in terms of human development? And how did water come to be securitised in India in the first place?

And it is not till the very last chapter that the theme of hope is addressed explicitly. The authors by no means need to be overly optimistic about the state of water security in India, but they have set themselves up for a discussion of the hopeful aspects of these issues too and it is remiss of them not to give this more space in the book.

But as the authors conclude on a positive note, I will too. For all my disappointment with it not telling a more compelling story, Water Security in India is very useful when taken as a textbook or reference guide rather than an original argument or grand narrative of water security in India. It is a compendium of all the relevant issues, it is full of facts, data, statistics, graphs, maps etc., and has an excellent index and acronyms list. The first chapter provides a thorough literature review of water-related books on South Asia and a good literature review on the development of the concept of water security (though inexplicably it does not mention the Copenhagen School of security studies, which pioneered the idea of (in-)security applying in spheres other than national defence).

More importantly, this book is a sign that the world is waking up to the implications of water-related problems in South Asia and as such it is a very welcome contribution to this field.

Paula Hanasz is a PhD Candidate at Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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