The lie of the land

A deluge of stories on water

Published: Wednesday 15 September 2004

-- IT IS likely the reader of this magazine feels water exhaustion. The sheer number of stories concerning water -- drought, hazardous chemicals swept up in floodwater, arsenic-contaminated groundwater, riverbeds encroached for sports or worship -- lend a monotonous hue that is unhealthy. This magazine began with the aim of giving the reader information and views on all issues with a science and environment perspective. Why then are we inundating you with water stories? Allow us to explain.

Ostensibly dealing with only 'water', the stories sweep semantically wider. In fact, they have a lot to do with land. Already, informed opinion has it that changing land use is more germane to the devastation last month's floods caused in Bangladesh, than previously understood (see: Mega-mishap). It is seriously worth asking if any attention was paid -- or not -- to hydrology in permitting industrialisation in Gujarat's Golden Corridor (see: Chemicals flow free in Gujarat). The hazard of arsenic-contaminated groundwater has to do with plumbing deeper aquifers and ignoring surface waterbodies, and trapping rain from the sky (see: More arsenic). The uproar over the Akshardham temple and Commonwealth Village on the bed of the river Yamuna is about land being snatched from the river -- after its water has already been stolen, for agriculture, upstream (see: Master violators). Water might be causing waves this season, but the undertow is land.

Land use is the biggest political challenge of our times. The standard excuse for bad land management is 'population increase'. More people need more houses -- and temples, if you please -- only in cities that must burst at their seams; more agricultural land; more dams for electricity; and more chemicals factories. But 'population increase' requires increased attention to land for water. Because floods and drought do greater damage in areas with greater population density. Take Bangladesh, where wetlands that absorbed floods have been built over.

What is required is that we carefully plan the amount of land we'll need for water in the future, as also for forests, rivers, livestock, and other important land uses. More than anything else, in a country that lives off three months of monsoon rain -- as we have for millennia but refuse to do now.

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