New Delhi: His story is a bit of an inspirational tale, somewhat similar to that of countless other young men who left India with virtually nothing in their pockets and made it big, and did their country proud, through grit and sacrifice. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Some 46 years after he left India, Asit K. Biswas, now a Canadian citizen and winner of the 2006 Stockholm World Water Prize, still thinks and works mostly for the Third World, in spite of—or because —of his success.
The Third World Centre for Water Management, which he set up in 1999 in Mexico City, carries out research work and feasibility studies on the best ways to manage the distribution of water. The four-person outfit, which includes his wife Cecilia, runs its operations at a 10th of the cost, and is more productive than its peers in the West, he says.
It doesn’t mean Biswas won’t work for the developed countries. He has, but only when the budget suits him. “Most of our consultancy work costs less than $10,000 (Rs4.4 lakh). And they never have the power to pass such small projects,” says Biswas, 70, as he shakes his head even as a crinkly smile lights up his face. “It might invite audit scrutiny when their total annual budget comes to millions of dollars!”
The centre has already made a mark for its out-of-the-box thinking and need-driven solutions, says Vimal Garg, who heads the environment and urban water operations at DHI Water & Environment, an independent water and consulting group.
“This is the need of the hour in India as the world of water here will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the past 2,000.”
Biswas has spent all of his life proving—and advising governments in 18 countries, including India—that water is really a simple, low-cost issue, definitely not stuff that nations or states should fight awar over.
“There’s enough water for all in the world,” he says, “even in the most water-scarce countries in West Asia. All we need is to efficiently manage the distribution and the political will to do so. The proof that not many of us are doing that comes up in the abundance of high-cost packaged water bottles, even in the poorest cities of Africa.”
Indian metros don’t fare any better. “In water and power systems in India, everybody loses,” Biswas says, shaking his head ruefully. Delhi’s record, in particular, is abysmal. It is the only city in the world where reverse osmosis systems for filtering water are used as a matter of routine. At any given time, Delhi’s water board doesn’t know where 55% of its water is going; unofficially, water lost during distribution could be as high as 65%. In contrast, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had a distribution loss of only 8% in 2000, a remarkable improvement from a 70% loss in 1993. Singapore, meanwhile, has the best water system in the world. It supplies water 24 hours with a supply loss of only 5%. India’s water minister Saifuddin Soz plans to lead a team to Phnom Penh, followed by a Delhi government team.
In Delhi and other Indian metros, the local water boards’ performance has actually regressed over time. In Delhi, the water board had drawn up a plan to partly privatize and modernize its system in 2005 with the help of the World Bank. The project had to be scrapped following controversy over costs and its goals, and the potential to raise water charges.
“The way I see it,” says Biswas, “the average citizen is already paying a lot per unit of water, in terms of packaged 25-litre bottles or installing a purification system at home; or in terms of health cost, if he can’t afford (it). Do you know that (the Delhi water board) charges one-third of Dhaka and one-sixth of Bangkok? People must pay for having access to clean water in their houses for 24 hours as well as for collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater. There is simply no other alternative.”
Could privatization be a better way of doing things in India? “We should go for any alternative that will provide a reliable water supply economically and equitably, without any dogmatic baggage,” says Biswas.
Water systems in Phnom Penh, Singapore and Tokyo, to name a few, are still in the public sector. Even though private firms in Europe have the best water technologies, only about 6% of the world’s water systems are in private hands and is likely to climb to about 15% by 2025. “But of course, the most inefficient water systems, too, are in the public sector,” says Biswas. “So the question is: how do we improve their performance?”
“A water-secure 21st century is feasible if we can ensure efficient resource management through human resource development,” says Biswas. “We should consider a public-private partnership, where provision of water services stays in public hands, but with extensive outsourcing of specific activities to local private sector wherever it is better.”
As for India, “The Prime Minister told me that he had two primary areas of focus: energy and water. That’s hugely encouraging,” says Biswas. “Even minister Soz is keen to learn.” Biswas is well known for dispelling myths about water supply and management—the belief that the world will soon run out of water and countries need integrated water resources management/river basin management systems.
“There is simply no one single approach for water management for a very heterogeneous world. Even what works in one developing country won’t work in another,” he says. This philosophy served many poor countries well during the UN International Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) that he helped formulate. While much remains to be done, the decade is considered a success in the sense that it put access to clean water and sanitation, now part of the UN millennium goals, on the development agenda. Even before that, Biswas helped in the formation of the UN Environment Agency, through his experience of setting up the Canadian ministry ofenvironment.
“He has tremendous abilities for organization and an amazing penchant for looking after the minutest detail,” says Rajiv Gupta, former executive director of the Sardar Sarovar project and now head of technical education, Gujarat government. Still, Gupta notes, his efforts to bring together the various UN water agencies under the Biswas-Hansen formula did not work and “still remains a distant dream”.
A civil engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur who specialized in dam engineering and building, Biswas landed in London in 1961 and found a job the next day with a Liverpool-based dam builder. But academia beckoned and then Canada. He returned to England for a doctorate at Oxford in 1981 and spent the next 16 years there, also chairing the Middle East Water Commission.
Why then go back to Mexico to set up his institute? “Partly because my wife Cecilia Tortajada belongs there. And also because when the Indian government asked me to do that here, I looked at the existing institutes and saw that there was so much idle potential. Why replicate another and add to the bureaucracy?” he asks.
Meanwhile, “the technical research that’s happening now is geared to the temperate developed world and totally inappropriate for India”, says Biswas. So he’s working with his alma mater in Kharagpur to set up a technical research and management programme. He’s talking to the Asian Development Bank to fund it for three years after which IIT will have to manage the programme.
Despite some very big hurdles in process and distribution, Biswas says world water needs have been traditionally overestimated—we are neither running headlong into a water war nor will water become as expensive as oil, he says.
However, the future would still lie in seawater, especially with the cost of desalination coming down to about 50 cents, or about Rs25 per cubic metre, he says.
Biswas is advising the Gujarat government on its Rs25,000 crore Kalpasar project to convert the Gulf of Khambat into a freshwater lake in seven years. The project, where feasibility reports will begin soon, is the most ambitious desalination project in the world, he says. “This has been done in Holland and Singapore, but on a much smaller scale.”
As the interview draws to a close, Biswas looks distinctly ill at ease in the comfortable environs of his five-star hotel room. He complains about not being able to check the web, quickly adding that the hotel’s business centre is no good as “they charge an arm and a leg”, and decides to walk to a nearby Internet café on Janpath.