Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in commons brings ruin to all.

Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons

[Garrett Hardin, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Human Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The Tragedy of the Commons” was originally given as an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, later published in Science, 13 December 1968, vol. 162, pp. 1243-48]

1.1. Introduction

Throughout the history of civilizations, water had been an ‘infinite’ resource, barring the last 75 years, when the process of rendering it to a ‘finite’ status accelerated … a process whose seeds were born during Renaissance (Circa 1500). The problems of water management, including water scarcity, ecosystem degradation, and water related disasters are expected to be exacerbated by global trends such as climate changes, population growth, urban sprawl, and uncertain food supply. In particular, population growth and climate change have already put a considerable stress on water management. The crux of all these problems is cryptically embedded in the unethical practices in water sector.

Ethical values takes different forms in different cultural groups. In western societies, ethical restrictions tend to take the form of behavioural rules which ultimately are codified in law. In non-western societies they may take the form of taboos or rites which develop into customs of behaviour with the social sanction of the community. The outstanding problem in synthesising a system of global ethics has therefore persisted till date. This is best exemplified by taking up a past incident.

The International Conference on Water and The Environment held in Dublin in January 1992 to provide the input on water problems to the Rio Conference on Environment and Development based its recommendations on four guiding principles. The fourth guiding principle opens by stating: “Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good. Within this principle, it is vital to recognise first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price.”

Unfortunately, this description of water as an economic good gave rise to problems in Islamic countries because the Holy Koran describes water as the source of all life and a free gift of God. Consequent to it, the Muslim world strongly opposed such sweeping inference, largely based on white values, being thrust on them and took it as an affront on their culture! Many indigenous, aboriginal, and tribal communities were also of the same view and fiercely opposed this guiding principle.




Six years after the Dublin Conference, a sharp controversy arose on this point at the UNESCO Conference on World Water Resources in June 1998. In the course of the discussion at that conference, participants from Islamic countries attacked this principle as being inconsistent with the characterisation in the Koran of water as a free gift of God. This example is typical of the problems facing the world community in formulating an acceptable ethical code of global scope.


A water ethic should be viewed in the context of a general environmental ethic (though there are some important differences). The concept of environmental ethics and the term itself is relatively new compared with the general concept of social ethics. It is so that a naturally healthy environment invariably includes dense forest – everywhere dense forests are provenance of water. The diversity of cultures and resulting disparity of approaches to problems of environmental science and environmental ethics (including water ethics too) is shown in the attitudes and values towards environment and water in Western Europe, South Asia, East Asia, Polynesia, Native America, South America, Africa and Australia.

1.2. International Water Governance

The issue of ethics in water is intricately intertwined with water governance. And water governance has gradually and steadily continued to shift from national governments to supra-nation international agencies, from 1947 onwards (when GATT – General Agreement on Trade and Tariff – was formed) and eventually took complete control in 1995 with emergence of WTO (World Trade Organization). In GATT water was recognized as a ‘tradable commodity’ for the first time and as a rule “no country is allowed to prohibit the export of a tradable good” (Article XI, GATT Rules). Subsequently when NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) came into being in 1990s, the same definition and provisions related to water as specified in GATT were retained. Later, when WTO replaced GATT, the same provisions were retained and further added hundreds of other water related services and goods.

There is a fundamental differences in the nature and functioning of GATT and WTO. In GATT, decisions were always taken on the basis of consensus, implying that every member-country has a veto power, be it small or big, poor or rich, weak or strong and this veto power was almost never diluted. Further, GATT very strictly confined only in trade in goods and never encroached in services. Neither had it imposed itself over the exclusive sovereign rights to frame economic policies.

In contrast, WTO has a decision-making body heavily tilted towards developed nations. WTO includes whole range of services banking, insurance, telecommunications, aviation, audio-visual, etc. For the first time a livelihood activity like agriculture is placed under trade in WTO. The worst is that WTO legislation largely erodes the sovereign rights of national governments to formulate and implement economic policies suited to country-specific requirements, as it is mandatory for all 190+ member-nations of WTO to reframe their municipal and national laws, policies and programmes in congruence with WTO legislations. WTO has both judicial and legislative authority to cancel any national and municipal law of any country, not in conformity with WTO legislation if it is shown to be trade restrictive. Any failure in compliance on this count, will lead to the penalty of cross-retaliation through discriminatory trade measures by other member-nations. It makes WTO the most powerful supranational body world has never witnessed.

How does WTO affect water? First, water supply services of a city falls within the category of a service under WTO regime, they are now open for entry of multinational companies. For instance, National water policy of India (2000) was revised in 2002 solely to insert two lines “allowing entry of private parties in city water supply”, after the expiry of grace period of 7 years. WTO’s little known GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) regime actually includes hundreds of services covering water, e. g. freshwater services, sewer services, wastewater treatment, construction of water pipes, waterways, tankers, groundwater assessment, irrigation, dams, water transport services, etc. making one wonder what is really left outside the purview of GATS. WTO, in league with another exploitative international body, World Bank, and water MNC has taken complete control of global water, where each agency has its specific role to play.

In a nutshell, in this nexus, WTO has built the legal ground for trade in water, wherein the national governments are forced to reframe their laws in congruence with WTO legislation; World Bank, covertly or overtly applies pressure on nations seeking loans, for handing over water services to private parties; and finally MNCs enter and operate in water sector with loans liberally granted by World Bank and its associate banks (see figure 1). They are assisted in this agenda by various think tanks which are in fact floated by trinity itself and hence zealously pursue their common goal – profiting from water at the cost of suffering masses.

Figure – 1: International Financial-Legal Model for Trade in Water (Source: Author, 2005)

1.3. Water Governance in India

In India, governance in general (including water governance), is riddled with corruption, as corroborated by Transparency International. India is the 79 least corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. Corruption Rank in India averaged 75.32 from 1995 until 2016, reaching an all-time high of 95 in 2011 and a record low of 35 in 1995.

Figure 2: India’s ranking among corrupt nations in last decade (Source: Transparency International, 2016)

The water, as a subject under Indian law falls under the state government and central government enters into the scene when there is an inter-state dispute. Furthermore, water as a subject is spread over more than a dozen departments and agencies of both state and central government. The most important of these is Department of Water Resources of the state/s, responsible for creation of water storage facility.

A study of water governance in the state of Madhya Pradesh was conducted by the author in 2010 and broadly 90% of it is found to be applicable for almost all the state. The study reveals that every step of official processing of a water development project provides ample scope to generate corruption (figure 3). Moreover, a gap analysis of the detailed functioning of the department of water resources brings to light parameters spread across whole spectrum leading to systemic failure (figure 4). Both the diagrams are self-explanatory. The end result of corruption in water results in poor water services, poor quality of water, and exponentially rising cost per unit. Paucity of space does not allow to go in greater details.

1.4. Water and Environics Trust

The basic thrust of our work at E T has been on the moral, ethical, equity, justice and akin issues related with water development projects. It also addresses the fundamental questions – who pays the price of development and who gets benefitted? This becomes pertinent in the wake of choice of model of development wherein only engineering form of water storage and utilization has become omnipresent, irrespective of ground reality and rich traditional knowledge of location-specific water usage. Currently E T had been working in Mahakali river basin in Uttarakhand, on aspects related with the ecology, environment, livelihood, community institutions, traditional socio-cultural economy, unique aspects of communities, etc. in various river valleys. Earlier, E T completed a comprehensive study on the hydropower development in Sutlej river basin in Himachal Pradesh. And before that E T was instrumental in working on the first ever State of Environment report for Uttarakhand in 2004, which also addressed issues related with water in Uttarakhand. E T has also worked on the water supply system of Dehradun. Summing up, socio-economic aspects of water have been a core issue of E T’s work.