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World Water Day Reflections (Hindu)

The U.N. General Assembly in 1993 designated March 22 as World Water Day and over the years as water resources are increasingly critically threatened and as acess to safe drinking water to greater numbers of people becomes a growing reality, this day has become a very important day and so too the themes chosen to motivate particularly policy makers and administrators dealing with critical resources such as water.

On a very recent visit to Madras, talking with a environmentally sensitive architect friend who is also a conscientious citizen and civic activist, our conversation turned to summer and impending water shortages and I enquired about the ground water level in her house. As summer approaches, concerns over water scarcity rise to the surface and enquiries are not about the health and happiness of the person but about water supply and those with independent borewells, the condition of their borewells.

As a socially conscious person, ofcourse she recharges her borewell and ground water through rain water harvesting. She has fought many civic and public battles for water but yet she was very sceptical of any solutions for our looming resource crises, both in the immediate and about the very future of humankind. She thought at best humanity may have another two or three hundred years to survive as a species and did not seem to think any of this ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ work will save us since the main machine of ‘development’ is wrongly designed and worse intrinsically designed for disaster.

She perhaps without realising was echoing Vaclav Havel reflections on Climate Change in the New York Times (‘Our Moral Footprint’, NYTimes Sept, 2007) just about a decade ago. Havel wrote, “The end of the world has been anticipated many times and has never come, of course. And it won’t come this time either. We need not fear for our planet. It was here before us and most likely will be here after us. But that doesn’t mean that the human race is not at serious risk. As a result of our endeavors and our irresponsibility our climate might leave no place for us. If we drag our feet, the scope for decision-making — and hence for our individual freedom — could be considerably reduced”.

Havel in his talks and writings on “Climate Change’ indirectly questioned whether this generation, our generation, in deciding to commit collective suicide through the current models of economic development, was it also not deciding the fate of future generations and that of the human species itself. Obviously we do not have that right to do so but we still exercise that right even if unconsciously through the ‘modern’ life we are all trapped in. According to Havel, it boils down to a moral question, and which is why he titled his article, ‘Our Moral Footprint’. This was Havel’s response to the oft asked question, in response to Climate Change by not just Climate Change skeptics, but others as well, ‘Why Bother’!.

Wendell Berry the Kentucky farmer, answering this question of “Why Bother” and writing in the face of the ‘environmental crisis’ of the 1970s, and that too in an era innocent of climate change, concluded that it boiled down basically to a moral imperative. His response was, “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” This is as much a choice that the individual has to make everyday, as those in public policy decision making, be it an engineer, an administrator or poltician. These are the choices that public administrators have faced in the past (fortunately we have a good record of such administrators) and face in the present also in relation to our natural resources in general and especially in relation to critical resources such as water.

It is in trying to “change the way we think” that international public goods institutions such as the agencies of the U.N. have days dedicated to protect different normative causes and for public advocacy with regard to natural resources be it wetlands, forests or critically threatened resources such as water.

‘Waste Water’

The U.N. General Assembly in 1993 designated March 22 as World Water Day and over the years as water resources are increasingly critically threatened and as acess to safe drinking water to greater numbers of people becomes a growing reality, this day has become a very important day and so too the themes chosen to motivate particularly policy makers and administrators dealing with critical resources such as water. UN Water created in 2003 after the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002, is an UN Inter Agency organization composed of member representatives of 26 United Nations organizations that work on water issues and 17 other, non-UN organizations who are partners of UN-Water and dedicated to work on all water related issues globally and also responsible for producing the thematic report on the theme chosen for World Water Day every year. This year’s thematic report published by UN Water is on ‘Waste Water’ a focus long overdue especially in the Asia Pacific region where more than 80% of waste water is not utilised and can go above 90% in countries like India.

Dealing with Waste Water, what I would like to call “reclaiming water”, is specially relevant to our cities in the Asia Pacific Region. Singapore meets 30% of its needs using recycled waste water which it calls “NEWater’. 16 of the current global 28 mega cities are located in Asia and the Pacific region, which is home to 53 per cent of the global urban population. Fast-growing cities contribute to each country’s economic growth and accommodate a major portion of the national population but also demand water for their survival and susstainabilty. However, with inadequate and unsustainable water infrastructure, 277 million people are still suffering from the lack of stable access to clean and safe water, thus making cities very vulnerable; while also increasingly exposed to impacts of climate change.

One constant feature of cities in the Asia Pacific of late is frequent natural disasters. Interesting to note that 90% of these disasters are water related and ironically creating situations of either of too much water (floods) or too little water (drought). A situation that cities like Chennai are all too familiar with. Water quality is another critical issue and water pollution is not only from industrial sources but mainly due to the contamination caused by sewage (black) and grey water water mixing with drinking water sources and contamination of supply lines given that water pipes given intermittent supply are at a lower pressure than sanitation lines.

If the latter are the problems of cities and urban areas, rural areas especially in the arid and semi-arid areas and dependent on largely ground water face another kind of challenge, the rapid drop in water tables especially given the failure of rains for the past four years or so. Living on an horticultural farm in a semi-arid region, we live this latter challenge of rapidly dropping ground water tables. The drought and the water situation in Karnataka is about the worst we have witnessed in our two decades of life on the farm. This is the first time in 42 years that the Mysuru region has received scanty rains, forcing farmers to abandon agriculture activities and we as horticulturalists have been also very much on the receiving end. We have already lost 30 full grown, yeilding coconut trees. Once their crown dries the rest of the tree faces a quick death.

We have been very judicious and careful with water all through our life on the farm. Our entire 7 acre farm is run through drip irrigation, we recyle all our grey water. We do rain water harvesting on our land (we have over 600 pits) plus all the roof water is harvested. Water harvested from the clean roofs goes through filters to a 10,000 litre sump and which is the water we have been using for several years for our drinking and cooking purposes. The water from other roofs goes to recharge the bore well directly and inspite of the dry spell in early December, on our one bore (which is 300 ft deep and we pump from 250 ft and that serves our entire 7 acre farm) the water level was at 90 feet depth from the ground level. Though I have not checked what the water level is now. Inspite of being extraordinarily careful and prudent in utilising water from that bore, we have been very worried, a kind of daily existential threat looms on our lives, not only because of no rains to recharge the bore but around us an average 5-10 bore wells were being dug every night from December onwards. That numbers have come down though as I write I can hear the sound of another rig in operation very nearby.

The worst story of the drought in Karnatka is that even parts of the Western Ghats, such as Kodagu have failed to record normal rainfall, drying up dams in the Cauvery basin . Farmers in Mandya district, part of the Krishnaraja Sagar dam ayacut area, have failed to harvest even a single paddy crop this year. The last rains we saw in our parts was in August last year though we got some spill over from cyclone Vardah in Chennai and which was for us scanty. As per estimates and surveys carried out by agriculture and revenue departments of the Karnataka government, 136 of the 175 taluks in the state are drought-hit and experiencing severe drinking water crisis. This is the third consecutive year of drought in the state and bore wells are drying up fast.

Finally we also decided to dig a new borewell. To locate a spot, in November last, with my own water divining skills and the help of a professional geologist friend we marked a spot as the ideal one to for the new borewell. Given however, that November and December landed up being one of the worst months in terms of the new uncertainties thrust on us by those in governance, we finally managed in February to get a rig to drill at the spot identified. But by February the ground water levels had drawn down even further. The rig came at 10pm (each rig does minimum of about 20 bores wells everyday nowadays and average depth is 600 feet but often 800 feet plus and come when they are free) started around 10.30pm and around 1.30am they had gone 340 feet and there was no water.

By our calculation we should have struck water at 280 feet but within the last two months ground water levels have been going down further given also that KRS dam and its back waters are also dry and so even though we live close to the backwaters, there is no benefit from that proximity for now. We stop the drilling at 350 feet but the next day my geologist assures me that he and me have chosen a good spot and we will definitely get water if we go deeper, another 150 feet atleast he says.

With great difficulty (the bore well riggers are a mafia) we get another rig to come and deepen beyond 350ft. We strike water at 480 feet not much but sufficient and drill till 565 ft for storage. I don’t want to drill upto or beyond 600 ft in order not to disturb the quality of water. Intuition (possibly fear also borne out of uncertainty) perhaps pays off. When I get the water from this new bore well tested, I find it has no iron (Fe) content and its softness is below 200 ppm which is great news for us, since the rainwater storage sump with no rains will be exhausted soon. But still not knowing when the rains will come, pumping of the water is done with great restraint each day.

After completing the work on our new bore well, and with some sense of security, I decided to leave the farm and visit Madras, and talking to friends and relatives during my visit the recurring theme is water scarcity. I advice a close relative living in Santhome and all of whose borewells in the apartment complex have gone dry, to leave the city till the rain comes. In the 1990s when I lived in the city, the city’s water shortage was met by water tankers supplying water from the rural hinterland and which is now a feature of all major cities. My students then who did studies on water, especially ground water discovered that the water merchants of then Madras had made enough money to migrate abroad!. Today’s Mysore, unlike Bangalore and Chennai, has not yet yet fully achieved that status of drawing on rural borewells to manage the city’s water shortage.

Though, in normal times also, rural areas being the source of vegetables and fruits for cities also regularly transfer ‘virtual water’ through these farm products to the cities. This is not to paint a one sided picture of cities parasiting the rural areas. More so, when the greatest user of water is by agriculture and the highest wastage and lowest water efficiency is also in water use in agrisculture. Environment, ecology and natural resources are not just about sinners and saints, everyone is culpable; it is not only the degree of culpability but what each one does with scarcity and how communities be they in the city or in the rural area use their intelligence to be prudent, live with restraint devise ‘mental and moral foot prints’ to reduce their ‘ecological foot print’ be it on water or any other natural resource. But above all to use their intelligence to do whatever they can, through judiscious use and re-use, to enhance the supply of a resource like water and for which we are completely dependent on the natural water cycle.

If our future is not that of environmental sinners and saints, then as Wendell Berry says even if, “we are by no means divided, or readily divisible, into environmental saints and sinners”. “But there are legitimate distinctions that need to be made. These are distinctions of degree and of consciousness. Some people are less destructive than others, and some are more conscious of their destructiveness than others. For some, their involvement in pollution, soil depletion, strip-mining, deforestation, industrial and commercial waste is simply a "practical" compromise, a necessary "reality," the price of modern comfort and convenience. For others, this list of involvements is an agenda for thought and work that will produce remedies”. That is what this year’s World Water Day theme does, to make you also think not only about the water you use but also about the water you let go as ‘waste water’ and make you think how to ‘reclaim it as a resource’. Our lives are not built on the resources we are endowed with or what comes to us by heredity but by what we “reclaim” and add as a resource.

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