Friday, December 01, 2006

Sly environmentalism

"It seemed like such a crackpot idea, I had to see the thing for myself — this perfectly working dam that the environmentalists want to blow up. This is a fantasy about an impractical extravagance. Not another taxpayer dime should be spent."

These unflattering remarks appeared in the LA Times yesterday [link, free registration required for viewing] with regard to the proposal to dismantle the dam on the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir and make way for the supposedly beautiful valley that lies submerged underneath. Ever since California's water resource department released positive results of a feasibility study of the dam removal, newspapers in California have flooded readers with stories and editorials about the issue. Very few of them, though, are as staunchly for or against the proposal as the one quoted here. Most commentrators have taken an equanimous stand, arguing that as long as the public is ready to pay for the removal and an alternative water supply for San Fransisco is secured (the reservoir is an important source of water for the city), there is no harm done.

Second-order environmental questions such as this are harder to think through compared to plain problems such as, say, a resort planned in the middle of a tiger reserve. This is especially so when the new order of things has been around long enough (the dam is nearly 85 years old now) to have gained a certain inertia by virtue of the political and natural ecosystem that quickly adapts and develops around the new development.

Another famous environmental issue of second-order complexity in California is the Salton Sea in southern California, which offers a converse conundrum. The Sea (which is actually a lake) came into existence in 1905 due to an engineering mishap, when a broken dyke allowed water from the Colorado River to flood a low lying area of the desert. Under normal circumstances, the water would simply have evaporated; in this case excess irrigation flows from the nearby Imperial Valley farms kept the pool topped up. Soon enough, the lake proved to be a hotspot for aquatic life, birds and tourists. However, the irrigation inflows carried with them the curse of irrigation - salts - and by the 1960s high salinity in the water had started to kill off life in the 'Salton' (called so for the saltiness) Sea. Today, added to the salinity threat, changing land-use in the catchment of the Sea is threatening inflows to the Sea, and there is an "environmental" movement calling for millions of dollars and policy changes to save the Sea (which didnt even exist a century back).

I like to play mindgames conjecturing how the various 'varieties of environmentalism' (Ramchandra Guha's book by this name is a must-read) would deal with the problem. A 'conservationist' would advocate saving the Sea, but would he also pitch to conserve the status quo with the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir? On the other hand, a 'restorationist' would want the dam brought down, but would he support draining the Sea and bring back the desert? Of course, a real tree-hugger will adopt the former approach for the Sea and the latter for the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir. Students of environmental politics should closely follow the course of the Hetch-Hetchy and Salton Sea debates.

Closer to home, one fine example of jugglery of environment concepts is found in Dying Wisdom: Rise, fall and potential of India's water harvesting systems, the trailblazing omnibus on traditional water systems. In the book, authors Agarwal and Narain discredit the contemporary approach to water resource development and make a pitch for revival of the decentralized water harvesting tradition. It took me years after first reading the book to recognize the logical inconsistency within. Many of the examples of "traditional" systems are structures such as the Bhopal lakes (commissioned by Raja Bhoj) and the vavs of Gujarat. You dont have to be a water expert to realize that these structures were hardly decentralized, community-based, or democratic. These structures represented giant public works of their time, some built for the perpetuity of the ruler's fame, involved thousands of workers, and certainly weren't based on any local initiative. Taking advantage of the fact that time erodes the political perception of these works, Agarwal and Narain used them to make a case for community-based initiatives in water. Now thats a pair of real tree-huggers!

To its credit, the book and the movement that followed it has achieved much. When India's water minister Saifuddin Soz said recently that Punjab's needs large-scale water harvesting to reverse its groundwater problem, he was unwittingly playing tribute to the authors' vision. In Indian polity, its not usual for someone who cannot muster a large unruly demonstration or isnt a swami or a film star to influence public policy to this extent.

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