Ganga diplomacy


Can the lessons learnt from Australia’s long struggle to save the Murray-Darling River help stop India’s Ganga from dying?
That was the question officials from India’s National Mission Clean Ganga were asking when they met with Australian scientists in New Delhi at the end of July.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising to clean up the Ganga, which is choked by toxic pollution, irrigation and encroachment. He honoured his word with the announcement of `2,037 crore for the Namami Ganga development project in the July Budget.
Countries keen to become friendlier with India took note of Modi’s priorities. The Australian High Commission’s seminar “Sharing technical challenges in the Ganga Basin and the Murray-Darling Basin” was their attempt at ‘Ganga diplomacy’.
Although many thousands of kilometres apart, the Murray-Darling and Ganga rivers share some surprising similarities, according to World Bank South Asia Region Water Initiative, Lead Water Resources Management Specialist Bill Young, a panellist at the seminar and former scientist at Australia’s CSIRO.
Both rivers are 2500km-long and have been pushed to the brink of collapse by humans.
The differences are that one million people live in the Murray-Darling Basin, whereas 700 million people live in the Ganges Basin. Also, the irrigation efficiency of farmers tilling the land in the Murray-Darling Basin is 80 per cent, compared to the Ganges Basin where irrigation efficiency is just 30 per cent.
Australia’s path to saving the Murray-Darling Basin was long, slow and complicated. Landmark legislation to revive the basin was eventually passed in 2008. The Water Act established the Murray Darling Basin Authority to monitor the amount and quality of water in the basin, ensure fair and sustainable water use and conduct research on water-dependent ecosystems to ensure their health.
At the seminar, CSIRO’s Peter Wallbrink said that it took “20 years of policy formation driven by crisis” to get Australia where it is today.
The Murray-Darling has long been tapped as a source of water for farming, suffering major salinity problems in the 1970s as a result. But it took a massive toxic blue-green algae bloom in the 1990s before government realised something needed to be done.
Mr Wallbrink said it then took years pushing for reform, with the states fighting for their water rights and community needing to be convinced about why their taxes should go towards saving a river instead of hospitals or schools.
Australia now has the policy, institutions, tools and technology to improve and sustain the health of the basin, ensuring it can support the communities that depend on it for farming. It is now the only river basin in the world where the water balance is known, thanks to cutting edge mapping technology.
The Indian government realised it had to do something to improve the health of the Ganga nearly 30 years ago, launching its Ganga Action Plan program in 1986 to tackle pollution.
While various steps were taken, weak governance, financial management and insufficient coordination means today the river is at crisis point.
National Mission Clean Ganga Mission Director Rajiv Ranjan Mishra painted a grim picture: massive pollution, sewage and industry runoff, exploitation, reduced flows, diversions for irrigation, diminishing wetlands, shrinking glaciers that feed the source, monsoon shifts and surging population growth are all choking life from the holy river.
There’s sewage run-off from 2,372 towns and 219,602 villages and dumping from 764 “grossly polluting” industries, Mr Mishra said.
“Much of our industrial waste and sewage waste is contributing into the groundwater,” IIT Kanpur Professor Vinod Tare said. He said that in the summer months when flows reduced but sewage and waste from industries and cities kept pumping, the river became “mostly waste” downstream.
The flow on effects for people living in the region are deadly. “Around 500,000 children die every year from water born diseases in the Ganges River Basin, if you don’t say that’s a crisis I don’t know what it is,” the World Bank’s Mr Young said.
Australia’s High Commissioner to India Patrick Suckling said the seminar provided a valuable opportunity for Australian experts to share water experiences and challenges with their Indian counterparts, and discuss how lessons from Australia’s water reforms in the Murray-Darling River Basin could apply to the Ganga rejuvenation project.
“Water management is a natural collaboration between our countries. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and we’ve had to learn to carefully manage our scarce and precious water resources. We see significant similarities in terms of what India is trying to achieve. Australia and India also have similar Centre and State government structures in the water sector, which makes our experience particularly relevant,” said Mr Suckling.
Australia and India signed the India-Australia Water Science and Technology Partnership in 2012.

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