Water Resources

Lessons from Colorado

Print edition : January 22, 2016

The Adyar river flowing over the bridge at Kotturpuram in Chennai and also submerging the Vinayagar temple at the southern end of the bridge on December 2, 2015. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

It is virtually impossible to get hydrologic data for Indian rivers, even those that are not controversial. Here, a file picture of the Cauvery falls, about 120 km from Bangalore. Photo: K. Gopinathan

A plan for sustainable management strategies drawing from experiences in the Colorado River Basin in western U.S.

HAVING grown up in India during the 1970s and 1980s in a semi-arid place close to Hyderabad, I have vivid memories of the erratic water supply and constant worry of running out of water. Survival involved filling up every little container when water poured out unannounced from an open pipe protruding into a pit, often during unearthly hours. On several days, especially during the dry season, the pipe would run dry, which meant standing in a long line of people with tempers flaring at the neighbourhood handpump for a pail of water. On the other hand, during some years there was excess water leading to floods and wastage owing to poor management. Such experiences were typical for most people at that time and, sadly, they are still the same today.

That India’s future rests critically on the sustainable management of its natural resources, especially water, is an understatement. India’s geography and highly variable monsoon climate are inadequate in meeting the water needs of the burgeoning population. Thus, to meet the country’s aspiration to be counted among the advanced countries of the world, smart and efficient water resources management is imperative.

My expertise in hydrology, climatology and water resources over the years has provided me the opportunity to collaborate with bright engineers and scientists to develop sustainable water resources management strategies for urban water utilities and the Colorado river in the western United States, which is a highly contentious river among seven States and two countries. These interactions remind me of my childhood water woes. It was also interesting to learn that these water management systems in the U.S. evolved over decades and that they too encountered issues similar to what India is facing now. The hopeful aspect is that India has the knowledge base and the ability to enhance its water management. To this end, drawing from experiences in the western U.S., a water resources framework with five major components is proposed—(i) holistic approach, (ii) data management, (iii) participatory management, (iv) transparency and (v) capacity building.

Holistic approach

In India, almost all rivers are managed as a resource by the States they flow through because they are a State subject under the Constitution. Unfortunately, rivers do not respect borders. In fact, almost all the major rivers pass through at least two States. Managing them on a State-by-State basis invariably leads to poor and often disastrous outcomes as each State has its own set of objectives that are in conflict with those of the other States and inconsistent with the overall availability and variability of water resources in the river. Increasing socio-economic growth has made this unwieldy and recent droughts and floods have demonstrated this. The current approach is akin to treating diabetes in isolation of dietary management.

Rivers have to be managed as a complete unit from the headwaters to the delta—river basin management. This requires robust and autonomous river basin authorities (RBAs). The charter for these would include (i) collection of hydrologic data in the basin; (ii) enabling water sharing agreements by involving all the stakeholders in the basin; (iii) operating and managing the infrastructure in a transparent manner by implementing the agreed-upon decisions; and (iv) enabling hydrologic, water resources management research so as to incorporate the latest ideas for efficient management.

Representatives from the basin State governments, stakeholders such as agricultural groups, municipalities, industry and environmentalists will constitute the decision-making group. Setting them as autonomous authorities gives them the ability to draw upon the latest science, explore and try a suite of strategies, and implement and arbiter the agreed-upon decisions in a transparent and trustworthy manner, which is sorely lacking in the current system. Also, this group can help alleviate societal inequities with regard to access to water during the decision-making process. At present, State governments and stakeholders are suspicious of one another and this has led to deadlock and acrimony year after year.

Groundwater resources must be included in the RBAs. Like rivers, groundwater too does not respect State borders and is intricately coupled with surface water, human activity in the basin and climate. When surface water is in short supply, as it happens owing to periodic dry years, groundwater is the resource of last resort and it is overexploited. Without an integrated and coherent management of groundwater with surface water, the impact will be dramatic as there will be little groundwater to draw upon in times of need. This situation is exacerbated by other policies such as free electricity for the agriculture sector without control of resource overuse. The problem is acute in large parts of India, and it will get worse this year because of two consecutive below-normal monsoons. There are well-documented technical studies and popular articles.

There are RBAs in some parts of India with good intentions, but without regulatory, operational and planning mandate they become one more addition to the languishing bureaucracy.

Data management

This is arguably the most important ingredient, the lack of which has stymied our management. When I review scientific articles for reputed journals from Indian researchers, it frustrates me that almost all the papers contain analysis of hydrologic data from the U.S. This is unintentional, as one can obtain data from any river, stream and lake in the U.S. with the click of a mouse. Whereas it is virtually impossible to get hydrologic data for Indian rivers, even those that are not controversial. India cannot afford its scientists studying the hydrology of the U.S., which the U.S does not need as there are plenty of researchers working on its problems. This lack of easy access to quality data has been extremely frustrating to researchers in India and also to folks like me who would like to contribute our expertise.

Secrecy and turf battles between agencies have plagued data collection and maintenance to the extent that one cannot trust the data from any of the sources. Given the legacy and the mindset, this is a difficult nut to crack and will require political will and a wholesale change in attitude. Without a strong system at the core of any exercise in water resources management to collect, maintain and share data in a uniform manner across the country, any endeavour will be unsuccessful.

There are several proposals afoot to solve the nation’s water problems, chief among them being the nice-sounding “linking of rivers”. Without good insights into water availability and variability, coupled with climate variability in all the rivers, this can be a costly boondoggle. This requires reliable data, the importance of which cannot be underscored more, particularly when planning to spend lots of tax-payer money for water management.

The hydrology community should take its cue from the meteorology community. Indian monsoon rainfall data are widely available and, in fact, are among the longest climate records in the world. This has led the best climate scientists from India and abroad to make major advances in the understanding of monsoon rainfall variability and predictability and in coming up with improved forecasting models over the years. The same can be done in hydrology. The free availability of hydrologic data from Indian rivers and groundwater use will lead to better understanding and modelling of river basin hydrology and consequently to efficient water resources management.

Participatory management

Civilisations through much of human history have had to contend with competing needs for water in rivers. In India, this has been exacerbated in modern times by socio-economic growth and limited water availability because of monsoon rainfall variability. This is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. Water resources management agreements and decisions have to be made considering all these competing demands. If not, the powerful lobby du jour will drive the management, leading to incoherency in decisions, long-term damage and unrest, which are seen frequently. A participatory management process is the best way to address this.

All stakeholders in a river basin should be identified and their representatives should be part of the decision-making group in the RBAs. The State government should represent the interests of the weaker sections. Such a formal decision-making group of a wide cross-section of users in the basin will lead to a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s concerns and optimal water management strategies. For example, I am sure farmers from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu sharing the Cauvery water, sitting together in a group like this, can empathise with each other and work out good mutual agreements than the bureaucrats in the current set up.

The participatory structure allows for exploring a variety of solutions. In the case of the Cauvery, for example, water trading could be part of the solution. Farmers and the government in Tamil Nadu can use financial instruments with Karnataka to enable reliable and timely water supply, and Karnataka can use the funds to maintain the water infrastructure and develop other efficient parts of their economy. With fertile lands in Tamil Nadu, it is best for both the State and the country to have a reliable agriculture output. Such cross-State and within State cross-sectoral water trading is gaining prominence and the RBAs can serve as test beds for initiating and promoting such ideas with stakeholders.

The stakeholders, who have a long history, tradition and culture associated with the river and earn their livelihoods from it, are natural conservators of the water resource. Involving them in a participatory and transparent manner can be unwieldy and spirited in the beginning, but over time their vested interests will enable sustainable management strategies.


Process transparency is very important for legitimacy, flexibility and to keep the harmony. The lack of a transparency culture both in decision-making and data-sharing is a major obstacle to efficient water resources management in India. Transparency does not come naturally and it took a long time to realise this on the Colorado River Basin and in the management of major rivers in the world. We can skip a few steps and learn from these experiences.

A robust decision-support tool is absolutely necessary for transparency. The tool should include all the operational rules and protocols for water and water infrastructure management (such as reservoirs, canals and diversions) on the river. This should be coupled with the data management system described above and state-of-the-art models of the physical system such as surface runoff, groundwater flow and their interactions. In fact, everyone—stakeholders and the public—should know the operational and planning decisions in real time.

Furthermore, the tool should be simple enough that every stakeholder group should be able to run it at its end. Such a decision-support tool can generate outcomes and impacts for various stakeholders under different hydrologic conditions and operational rules. Every stakeholder can get a complete perspective of the impact of river basin management on all users. Consequently, mutually beneficial agreements on water-sharing and operation protocols can be reached with empathy and understanding. Another benefit of such a tool is the ability to analyse a variety of hydrologic scenarios at short time scales, for example, daily to seasonal, to select optimal management strategies that meet the competing needs, and at longer time scales, for example, multi-decades, to plan for changing climate.

Capacity building

None of the above will be realised without a steady capacity of skilled water resources engineers and scientists. Even before the information technology revolution it was difficult to attract the best minds to civil engineering and related fields, now it is made much harder. This is a serious problem and if policies are not put in place soon to build this capacity, I am afraid India will have to outsource all of these to the rest of the world. Recent history shows a steady decline in top talent in the fields of basic sciences, humanities, social sciences, traditional engineering fields—in short, all non-IT fields. This needs to be stemmed and reversed, which can take time.

This requires a three-pronged approach: (i) the curriculum for water resources engineering should be well-rounded to include climatology, large data analysis, public policy and water economics; (ii) recruit top talent from colleges and initiate them into the exciting and challenging problems through summer internships and get them into a meaningful and rewarding career path; and (iii) get the IT industry to be invested in this endeavour by involving them in the development and maintenance of data information systems, decision support tools and so on.

An important area where the country is woefully short on human resources and competence is the coupling of skilful weather and climate forecast with water resources management—both in real-time and longer-time scales. This was painfully exposed during the recent floods in Chennai, where the operations of the lakes and reservoirs were incongruent with the ongoing weather, let alone the forecast, which was quite good. As one of my former colleagues here at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Professor Gilbert White, considered the pioneer in flood plain management, famously said: “Floods are an act of God, but flood losses are largely an act of man.” The coupled system mentioned above could have mitigated the needless flood disaster. This would require motivating our best minds into important fields such as meteorology, atmospheric sciences and hydrology, and introducing these topics rigorously within the civil engineering curriculum. The knowledge and insights readily exist to build this capacity and the country must make serious efforts.

The social connectedness, energy and idealism towards environment conservation of the younger generation offer a lot of hope. This needs to be encouraged and tapped right from high school, so as to develop a pipeline that will produce a motivated and skilled workforce.


The water management framework in place since India’s independence has served out its useful purpose. It is like an old mansion in need of major structural upgrades to bring it to modern times. The framework should be thoughtfully upgraded soon to meet the emerging challenges of this century before they become overwhelming. The proposed framework is generic in that it can be adapted to operate regional and urban water resources such as a system of lakes and reservoirs to take care of competing demands of water supply, flood control and irrigation, and in the process enable sustainable growth. Had there been such an integrated system in vogue, the recent flood devastation in Chennai could have been greatly mitigated.

Thankfully, we can draw from several experiences around the world. The Colorado River Basin offers one such example with parallels to the Indian context. It gets annual precipitation as winter snow like the annual monsoon rainfall; the river flows through semi-arid and desert regions supporting a burgeoning population and socio-economic growth much like our rivers; it is highly contentious with seven States and two countries sharing its waters; and it has large and diverse stakeholder groups, including small and large agriculturists, ranchers, native tribes, hydropower generators and, energy producers from fracking. The management system evolved over decades with trial and error, climate events such as floods and prolonged drought, all of which led to the present structure of river basin management with transparency and stakeholder participatory management. Such a transparent system led to the landmark agreement on sharing shortage among the stakeholders following the recent unprecedented prolonged drought in the basin. This is hailed as a model for managing other river basins in the U.S.

Transparency and participatory management can seem difficult and messy at the start, but when they take hold over time they create a collective sense of investment in the endeavour and the agreements and decisions are enduring. Furthermore, they make for nimble vehicles to plan for future changes—be they in terms of socio-economic growth, climate variability, and so on—and devise sustainable policies.

Balaji Rajagopalan is Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, United States.

Prof. Upmanu Lall of Columbia University, New York, who is also the director of Columbia Water Centre, contributed inputs and ideas for the article.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor