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Book Reviews


Water, Ecosystems and Society: A Confluence of Disciplines. By Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Sage, 2009. Water is the fundamental life sustaining element. But our understanding of the intricate relationships that link water with the natural ecosystems and human societies is very limited. The initial knowledge base of water management in India was handed over by the British in the early years of the colonial era, starting with institutions like the Thompson Engineering College at Roorkee. Subsequently, the education of the engineers in independent India remained unchanged and guided by the colonial legacy. The perceptions of reductionist engineering which did not have inputs from a holistic eco-hydrological viewpoint, continued unabated. Thus, our engineers were hardly informed that the hydrological and geomorphological status of the river basins in India differs widely from that of Europe or America. With the availability of concrete and steel, the engineers built up thousands of dams and barrages which enhanced the water availability dramatically but the social and ecological consequences of those massive structural interventions were not properly addressed. The book by Bandyopadhyay provides a way out for the reductionist approach to engineering. Academicians including Bandyopadhyay who advocate a new holistic strategy for river management, call it ecological engineering. The book provides a much needed theoretical premise for such a paradigm shift in the philosophy of water management. The book is a collection of four articles and starts with a paper entitled Interdisciplinary Knowledge on Water System. It is dedicated to the legendary Sarvodaya activist couple, Vimla Behn and Sunderlal Bahuguna. The author has correctly stressed on the need for deeper hydro-geomorphological and ecological understanding of India’s surface as well as the groundwater resources. The crucial gaps in the knowledge of ongoing water management practices in India have been addressed in subsequent chapters. The second chapter addresses the flood events and the author rightly pointed out that floods need not always be viewed as unexpected disasters but as the expected result of meteorological variation in monsoon conditions. The floods render many ecosystem services beneficial for the society and the natural ecosystems. Rivers have ceased to bestow those benefits where their flows are moderated by either dams or embankments. The next chapter is on valuation of the various services rendered by water. This has been a topic of research as well as practice in recent years. In particular, the valuations using ecological economics are of great potential use in policy formulation. The Washington Consensus paved the way for privatization and commodification of water which is still treated by many people as the common heritage of humanity. The services rendered by water to the human society are invaluable and declaring this vital resource as a sellable commodity renders the transnational corporations an opportunity to buy whole water systems. If water is privatized and owned by the highest bidder who will pay for the satisfaction of water needed by the natural ecosystems? This question needs to be answered. The proposed interlinking of Indian rivers is the most debated and expensive project the country has ever thought of. The final chapter of the book is a scientific assessment of the claims made in favour of the project. The declared objectives of the project are to achieve Decision, Vol. 36, No.3, December, 2009

Book Reviews


freedom from flood and drought, expansion of irrigated area, generation of hydroelectricity, improvement of navigation facility by inter-basin transfer of water and supply of drinking water to many urban centres. The monumental cost of this mega project, as estimated in 2002, would be more than twice the revenue earned by the Government of India that year. The project was conceived and accepted by the Government of India without any environmental impact assessment and did not take into account the minimum flow required for satisfying the basic needs of the ecosystems. The proponents of the project believe that the water that flows to the sea is “wasted” and propose to intercept the terrestrial part of the hydrological cycle. The spatial and temporal variation of rainfall and temperature in India has led to the emergence of various ecosystems in different geographical regions. But the project is too optimistic to achieve a hydrological equity in the country and thus contravenes the basic principles of eco-hydrology. The analysis establishes that the claims of economic viability and ecological sustainability of the project are highly inadequate and states that the declared benefits of the river-linking project are populist claims and not based on any scientific assessment. The book is a very important contribution to social science and engineering. It contributes to the knowledge base relating to several components of a hydraulic society and expands the scope for analytical study in the arena of water management. It is a must read for engineers, economists, political scientists, and the informed populace in general. Dr Kalyan Rudra Project Director River Research Wing, Sea Explorer’s Institute, Kolkata

Decision, Vol. 36, No.3, December, 2009