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15 September 2016, Gateway House

Water crisis: traditional solutions work

In a paper submitted to the Degrowth Conference, Budapest, held from August 30 - September 3, 2016, Rajni Bakshi argued that there is much to learn from India's traditional water systems in preparation for the oncoming global water scarcity crisis.

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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The Crisis

  • Water scarcity provides greatest cause for a paradigm shift in the global economy in how natural resources are used.
  • Should business continue as usual, by 2030, global demand for water is expected to exceed viable resources by 40%.[1]
  • The World Bank estimates that water scarcity will be further exacerbated by climate change, and by 2050 this could cause a 6% decline in the GDP of some countries.[2]
  • Asia is the veritable epicentre of this accelerating water crisis. The per capita availability of fresh water in Asia is 2,816 cubic meters, less than half the global average of 6,079 cubic meters. [3]

Learning from India’s Traditional Water Systems

India is home to some of the world’s most remarkable water traditions – this can be seen particularly in arid areas, where dire water scarcity led not to fierce competition, but rather to the most intense and creative forms of cooperation. This cooperation facilitated the accumulation of scientific knowledge over generations, and consequently produced three dimensional innovations that simultaneously sustained eco-systems, created sustainable local economies, and supported social norms and technical skills.

Today’s policy planners, private sector, and local communities can benefit from adopting key insights employed in traditional systems:

  • Catch every drop of rain water where it falls in ways that sustain the larger eco-system instead of building economic systems that depend on exogenous waters for either survival or economic growth.
  • Respect the inherent dynamic of the specific ecosystem, and design infrastructure and economic activities that work within its limits.
  • Cultivate social norms and cultural practices rather than state policies enforced through policing, to ensure sustainable agriculture and production systems across generations.

In this context, existing plans to inter-link India’s rivers are a recipe for disaster that would inevitably lead to more water-sharing disputes.

Indian agriculture is already the world’s most water intensive – largely due to wastage – a problem which could worsen with the development of large canal networks carrying water over long distances.

Suggested Policy Frame

Attempting to maximise water utilization is no longer enough. Policies and laws must ensure that the public and private sectors alike map the wider impacts of water use on the environment – i.e. how water drawn out of the ecosystem affects the competing human and non-human demands for water.

Policy must build upon the findings of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on how to “decouple” water and GDP growth. This means finding ways for an economy to grow without a corresponding increase in environmental pressure. [4]

India is rich in success stories at the grassroots level on methods to catch, store, and use water in ways that favour the well-being of both humans and ecosystems, based on a recognition of nature’s limits. However, the macro-application of these insights requires a shift away from the emphasis on GDP growth and the accumulation of wealth to holistic metrics that encompass both human and ecosystemic well-being.

Government, the private sector, and local communities must work together to foster futuristic systems of water commons; they can take inspiration from but not be limited to traditional practices.

You can download the PDF version of this paper, titled ‘India’s Traditional Water Culture: A degrowth future and the quest for a steady state economy’, here.

This paper was written for the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest, held from the 30 August to 3 September 2016.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.

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© Copyright 2016 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1] Stuchtey, Martin. ‘Rethinking the Water Cycle’, McKinsey & Company Insights, May 2015, <>.

[2] Water Global Practice, ‘High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy’, World Bank Group, 2016 <>.

[3] Brahma Chellaney, ‘Asia’s Troubled Water’, Project Syndicate, April 22, 2016. <>

[4] Options for Decoupling Economic Growth from Water Use and Water Pollution (2016). UNEP report.