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Water Allocations for Ecology: Some queries!

I am a BE student. My question is, what are the water requirements for ecology? What kind of water allocations does that require? The National Water Policy, 2002, has placed ecology at the fourth place in the priority order. What does that mean? How is the the policy implemented?

Has any country or state successfully implemented allocation for ecology? If yes, where and how? Looking forward to some valuable inputs.

Srujanika Tripathy

Sambalpur, Orissa




Dear Srujanika Tripathy,

By now you have had three replies. Still, there is room for this fourth one, because it carries a different “flavour”. Before I proceed, please note that the views expressed here are my personal views.

A simple reply is - you can’t drink your water and have it too. Consider following two propositions:

a) India is (or about to be) a water stressed country, whose water resources are just about equal to their needs, and every drop is precious.

b) India has so much water that we can let 60% of the annual runoff - of which 20% of MAF during lean season - flow through the river and into the sea for EFR. (See “Good” habitat row of Modified Tennant Method)

Both a) and b) above can not be true simultaneously. Which one is true? Take your pick. (Or try asking WWF).

Significant amount of discussion has already taken place on this subject in IWP, but it can not be accessed from the link to Parinita Dandekar’s blog given by Francis. Visit following page and most of your doubts regarding EFR would be cleared. Some additional explanation and also specific replies to your queries are further ahead.
The NWP 2002 was adopted by the “National Water Resources Council”. The Prime Minister is the Chairman of NWRC; Union Minister of Water Resources is the Vice-Chairman; and Minister of State for Water Resources, Union Ministers/MoS of all concerned ministries; Chief Ministers of all states; and Lieutenant Governors/Administrators of all Union Territories are the Members. And of course they all receive technical inputs from their respective technical departments.

As you can see, a highest possible group of decision makers has placed environment in the fourth position of priority. And this has been criticized by all the NGOs and activists. How does one explain this contradiction?
It is easy to see that the division of views is on following lines. Those in the government have the dual responsibility to provide water/ food/ electricity/ etc. to the people; and also translate into action what they advocate, and they all have agreed to placing EFR at fourth priority in NWP. Those outside the Government have no responsibility to produce any results, and are not required to demonstrate that what they advocate can work, and they all have criticized placing of EFR at fourth position. This division of views – grim reality versus romantic theories, is now an integral part of any discourse on water.

Now, specific answers to your questions.

1) What are the water requirements for ecology? and

2) What kind of water allocations does that require?

That can not be answered unless one quantifies the objective. And there lies the crux of the matter. Ecological objectives have never been quantified, and personally I am of the opinion that we will never see an end of debate on quantification of EFR. It is like this – the ideal state of river environment is the pristine state, no abstraction. This is clearly impossible, and even the naturalists understand that. But to accept some abstraction means accepting reduction of some environmental objective. And no naturalist will ever allow himself/herself to be in that position.

Sacchidananda Mukherjee of WWF has suggested that “It is not the allocation of water to the system, but limit to divert of water from the system for other uses”. Fair enough. From the technocrat’s community, the quantity needed for human consumption has been estimated between 934 BCM (NCIWRD – low demand estimate for 2050) to 1500 BCM (by some individuals). If WWF (and the likes) do not agree with that, then they should do their own analysis and place it in public domain. If and when they do, you and I can examine it. Till then, the figures from the technocrat community are the only ones there.

3) The National Water Policy, 2002, has placed ecology at the fourth place in the priority order. What does that mean?

Just one example – Upper Yamuna water is allocated for irrigation despite there being a demand for more of it for drinking use; and 10 cumecs of it is also allocated to environment despite there being shortage for all other uses. Cauvery tribunal has also allocated some water for environment. The point is - it does NOT mean that from any available water we first satisfying all drinking water needs, only then all irrigation needs, only then all hydropower needs and only then ecological needs. The priority is an indicator of the importance to be attached to various uses while allocating water.

4) How is the policy implemented?

It is not correct that “Water allocation for ecological services is the least priority for the governments.” The correct position is - water allocation for drinking/ irrigation/ hydropower is a higher priority for the governments. This is obvious, because only the governments have the responsibility to provide drinking water/ irrigation-food/ electricity/ infrastructure/ economic development etc. etc.

5) Has any country or state successfully implemented allocation for ecology?
If yes, where and how?

As mentioned above with examples of Yamuna and Cauvery, water is allocated for environment even in India. And likewise it is implemented in almost all other countries, each according to their capability. When WWF replies that it is implemented only in South Africa, what it means is – it is only in South Africa that it is implemented to WWF’s satisfaction. If only one country in the whole world has done enough, it speaks volumes for the practicability of their perspective (and to the best of my knowledge, even in South Africa this was short lived).

However, if a country is giving more water to ecology DENYING drinking/ irrigation/ hydropower needs of their citizens, then it is they who should learn from India.

With regards,

Chetan Pandit
Chief Engineer
National Water Academy


Dear Srujanika Tripathy,

Water requirements for ecology are basically the amounts of water needed to support flora and fauna and basic ecosystem functioning. To take a river, for instance, a minimum flow is needed to ensure that not only the fish, but the reeds, algae, amphibians, snails, earthworms, and of course larger animals have sufficient water to survive.

Lakes similarly require a minimum level of water for such living organisms survive. The prioritization in the national water policy, however, is basically meant for the allocation of 'surplus' water, i.e., surface freshwater in rivers and lakes, and underground water that are more than the 'ecological minimum' described above and can thus be used for human activities like drinking, agriculture and industry.

However, the notion of the ecological minimum is not used practically by those who extract surface or ground water for human needs, causing groundwater aquifers and rivers to dry up through over-extraction. One country that has successfully legislated measures to protect the ecological minimum requirement is South Africa, which has established a Basic Ecological Reserve in its water policy and modeling.

They are also the first country to guarantee through their Constitution that every citizen is entitled to 25 litres per day of Free Basic Water. You can find more information on the website of their Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF).


A. J. James
Advisor (Development)
Environmental and Natural Resource Economist
ICRA Management Consultancy Services Pvt. Ltd.


A post on the India Water Portal blog by Parineeta Dandekar deals in depth with the problems and possible solutions in the Eflow context in India.

Access post on IWP blog here: Environmental Flows for Indian Rivers: The Need and the Urgency

Ina reply post Chetan Pandit presents the ground reality of the issue in the Indian Context: Eflows


Dear Srujanika Tripathy,

1. What are the water requirements for ecology?

There are large numbers of ecological services provided by a water system (e.g., river, wetland, tanks etc.). To get those services (e.g., groundwater recharge, nutrient trapping, waste assimilation, impacts on local climate etc.) uninterruptedly from the system, we have to meet the water requirements for the system. The water water requirement varies across services and across the system.

For example, assimilation of pollution load is an example of ecological services provided by a water system; if it doesn't have enough fresh water to assimilate the pollution load the very existence of the system becomes vulnerable. The capacity to provide the ecosystem services depends on water availability and various geological, hydrological and geomorphological features of the system.

2. What kind of water allocations does that require?

It is not the allocation of water to the system, but limit to divert of water from the system for other uses - like agriculture, industry, domestic etc. -To maintain the water system as an integrated ecosystem, we have to maintain water according to the demand for environmental services provided by the system.

The environmental demand for water is also known as Environmental Flow for a river. The E-flow is determined based on both hydrological characteristics of the system and also on habitat suitability of various aquatic species (fish, dolphin, turtle, micro invertebrates, benthic flora etc.), and the presence of those species could be taken as healthiness of the system.

3. The National Water Policy, 2002, has placed ecology at the fourth place in the priority order. What does that mean?

It implies that water requirements for the system, from which other demands for water are met (drinking water, irrigation, hydropower etc.) will be allowed to get water after meeting demands for drinking water, agriculture and hydropower development.

After meeting growing demands from domestic, industry and agriculture sector, hardly any water remains in the system which could be used for ecological services. Series of hydropower projects at the upstream of a river divert water through tunnels which makes the system unsustainable and hampers the ecosystem services it provides.

4. How is the the policy implemented?

Water allocation for ecological services is the least priority for the governments. After meeting the demands for other sectors, since other sectors have their own lobbies (e.g., agriculture, industry, domestic uses), there is hardly any water left in the system so that it could perform the ecosystem services.

Without having strong lobby for environmental / ecosystem services of the water system, water allocation for ecosystem becomes least priority for the government. In India, there is not a single state have strategy to meet the environmental demand for water.

5. Has any country or state successfully implemented allocation for ecology? If yes, where and how?

In South Africa, environmental demand for water is met through their Water Act, and it is implemented. I hope we need to learn from them.

With best regards,

Sacchidananda Mukherjee
Senior Manager - Water Resources and Policy
World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India
New Delhi - 110003


Dear Srujanika Tripathy,

Indeed, India has placed water for human and allied uses at the top - drinking water first and then irrigation water - both related to water and food security which are placed on top of attaining before attaining ecological security and which appears to be legitimate for a populous and increasingly populous country like India.

Several developed countries also place societal priorities first and then the ecological requirements. However, in the US, which has plenty of resources, there has been a shift in thinking. From the commissioning of several large and medium dams in the 19th Century in America, they began dismantling some of them so that the ecological needs would be met adequately. Brazil also has a good amount of priority given to meeting ecological needs. I am not sure whether any other nations have put ecological water needs ahead of human/societal water needs.

With regards,

Ramakrishna Nallathiga
Knowledge Manager (Infrastructure & Environment)
Centre for Good Governance
Andhra Pradesh


Dear Srujanika Tripathy,

Water for ecology or ecological flows or environmental flows is being talked about increasingly the world over. As you have said in your query the National Water Policy does mention this as one of the priorities in terms of water use. In fact The Orissa State Water Policy mentions this as the second priority which is quite a radical step.

Each state is supposed to allocate water for different sues like domestic water, agriculture, industry, hydro power, environment, recreations and so on as per the priorities given in the water policy. The issue of water prioritising comes into play more during times of scarcity.

However, the experience is that very often water prioritization remains only on paper and it does translate into actual allocations as per the policy priorities, except may be in the case of drinking/domestic water.

In the western countries environmental flows has a longer history and environmental flows has been taken into consideration while planning the river basin water use and allocations. In India it is pretty recent and has not made any impact on river basin water planning and allocations across different uses. In fact it ahs become a major issue of conflict: ecosystem needs versus consumptive use.

Our book: "Water Conflicts in India: A Million revolts in the Making" has a few case studies on this issue capturing the different dimensions of this conflict. In India the mainstream viewpoint is still one of `any water flowing in the sea is a waste'!

There is fixed quotas to how much water would be required for ecosystem needs. It would vary from river to river. Some people say that may be 10 to 15% of the flows should remain untouched and allowed to flow. But as I said, it would depend on the bio-physical and morphological characteristics of the river. Also there are different methodologies to assess this. We have been advocating that one should see that most of the post monsoon flows should be allowed to flow and this has implications for reservoir operations.

For example, the required water can be diverted and stored in the service areas during the monsoon period and allow the most of the flows in the post monsoon periods to flow.

In fact there is a two day conference in Bangalore on 3-4 January on this issue. Dr. A. Latha of Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshan Samiti, Trichur has been working on this issue and should be able to give more detailed and scientific response to this. She is also one of the organisers of the Bangalore conference. Her email address is:


K J Joy
Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM)


Further information on Eflows from the Proceedings of the [b]National Consultative Workshop on Eflows[/b], hosted on the India Water Portal can be accessed here:

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