by Preeti Gopal, PhD https://preetigopal.github.io/

In our pursuit of life on other planets like Mars, one of the first few elements we search for is the slightest trace of water. This describes the importance of the role that water plays in sustaining life. However, it is ironic that despite knowing this, we as a species continue to pollute, waste and commercialize water bodies in our only home, the Earth.

India, specifically, is blessed with scores of rivers and tributaries flowing from all major mountain ranges across the entire country. Some of the major rivers are the Ganges, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri. 

And yet, we are in the midst of a severe water-crisis. 

Every year for many years now, we have been facing more frequent and longer droughts. Every season, we continue to read about crop failures and hundreds of farmers committing suicide due to the lack of normal rainfall. The tragic situation is worsened by increased cultivation of water-heavy mono-crops like cotton, sugarcane, wheat and rice. Instead of cultivating millets, pulses and other crops that have a low-water footprint, we pump in money on research for genetically modifying crops to make them drought-resistant. But of course, the problem isn’t solved even then. 

The resulting human-induced lack of water pushes the economic agenda for the construction of more dams. Dams create new water-wars wherein one state which is near the source of the river is at an advantageous position to store all the water that would have otherwise flown in its natural volume and course into another state that is near the sea-end of the river.  When the monsoon fails, as frequently is the case, there is less water to share and disputes are likely to escalate. At times, we have seen negotiations get violent (for example between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in 2016) until the Supreme Court is asked to intervene in order to resolve the fight with some temporary solution.

With these temporary solutions come new problems, themselves not nearly as temporary. The construction of dams adversely affects biodiversity both in water and on land, causes the erosion of coastal deltas and devastates the livelihoods of the native population on the river basins. Most of these people become permanently displaced. The resulting human-crisis is evident like in cases such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Tired of the constant political feud with neighbours over water, states like Tamil Nadu have also invested in desalination plants for converting sea-water into fresh water (something that the water-cycle naturally does for us for free!). The desalination plants are highly inefficient in terms of energy used for the conversion. In addition, their long-term environmental impact on the sea-shore is yet to be studied. 

In the urban scenario, the exploitation of water bodies is a different story. Dense development that leaves little room for green spaces like parks and gardens, and poor maintenance of drainage systems mean that the little-to-medium rainfall that metropolitan cities receive quickly floods the concrete jungle and results in a disaster. Citizens contribute generously to flood relief funds and participate in rescue missions to provide food and safety to those who are the most affected by these man-made floods, usually slum dwellers. We succeed only partially in our rescue efforts and sorrowfully accept the damage done. Days pass by and we forget the incident until yet another flood hits another place.  And all the while, the urban lakes and their ecosystems are rapidly being destroyed either by a) filling them up with soil to enable construction and real-estate transactions in the area, b) dumping part of the city’s solid waste into it, and c) dumping untreated industrial effluents. The infamous Bellandur Lake in Bengaluru caught everyone’s attention in May 2015 (and again in January 2018) when it caught fire due to the toxic concoction of chemicals dumped into it. 

Most urban residents have witnessed the transition from the soft water from local municipalities to hard water from their own borewell. Because of depleting groundwater, borewells are dug deeper and deeper every year in search of water. The supply-chain of portable water is now in the hands of a mafia in most cities (like Bengaluru and Chennai) where residents buy water transported in lorries from borewells dug on the outskirts of the city. 

Clearly, our water management is messed up. 

And contrary to the tech savvy vision of our nation, this problem cannot be solved by more drought-resistant GMO crops, more dams, deeper borewells, more subsidies for failing crops, newer desalination plants or the famous upcoming inter-river linking project. Each of these solutions is merely a temporary band-aid to the crisis and each comes with its own health, environmental and human-right hazards.

The only way to get out of the water-crisis is by understanding the water-cycle. Though this subject is on the third grade syllabus in school, most of us, if we studied it at all, merely learnt it by rote. Yet if we dive deep into its wisdom, we realize just how perfectly nature does her job when we stop interfering with, or trying to control her. 

For example, if in our cities, we let the rainwater be absorbed into the ground, not only can we reduce the risk of flooding, but the underwater table will rise too. This can easily be done by freeing up some concrete space (and creating parks and gardens) and protecting urban lakes and their ecosystems. If we build a rain-water harvesting facility into our homes, we can  replenish ground-water. If we choose to consume a variety of millets and pulses, very soon farmers will grow them in greater abundance and benefit from their low water-footprint. If we stand-up against our neighbouring industry’s waste disposal practices, they will be forced to treat their waste and dispose it sustainably. 

And if we go vegan, we can save tonnes of water that is currently being used for growing animal feed, and cleaning animal shelters and abattoirs, and ofcourse as the animals’ drinking water.  Such a lifestyle will also prevent water bodies from being polluted by the leather tanning industries and contaminated by a currently overwhelming amount of animal waste that is seeping into our soils and into our waterways.

Are we going to continuously focus on another band-aid and proceed towards ‘zero-water day’, or will we thrive by living in congruence with nature? Let’s go back to our third-grade syllabus, but this time, instead of just memorizing the lesson on the water-cycle, let’s study it closely and abide by its infallible principles.

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