Water - It's in our hands

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

It is often argued that one is known by the 1company he keeps. I am not sure how correct this is, but I am certain it would be correct to say that "a society is known by the water it keeps". This is because water - earth's purest fluid - has the uncanny ability to collect the human society's ills, and slowly but steadily reflect them in its own degradation.

Ultimately, the degrading waterbody gets destroyed and, in some cases, it can just disappear without leaving a trace behind. Any polluting activity on land will ultimately pollute waterbodies in the drainage basin. If grasslands or forests in the watershed are destroyed, associated waterbodies will silt up and die. Therefore, the health of a river, a take or a wetland reflects the very health of the human society: its ability to live harmoniously with its environment, to regulate itself and check its degrading activities, and to appreciate the fine web of life.

India's waterbodies are facing a slow death and revealing signs of an equally sick and dying civilisation. I say 'civilisation' and not 'society', because India boasted of a civilisation which always respected its water resources, Indian rivers are worshipped. Major temples were constructed on major river sources. Numerous cities were built along the rivers - from the famous Kashi and Varanasi to the equally famous Pataliputra. And if there was no river, artificial tanks were constructed - from Rajasthan down to Tamil Nadu. Only because of its ability to live with its water, Mughal India manifested one of the world's highest levels of urbanisation by the time the British arrived in India.

Today, that entire heritage - both physically and culturally - has been washed away. There is hardly a modern city which knows how to, or cares to, respect its water resources. Ali ancient waterbodies are getting polluted or just disappearing off the face of Hyderabad, Madras, Bangalore and various other cities. Does any politician care? Does layaWitha care? Does Rama Rao or the new charge d'affaires, his son-in-law, care? Do any of the Karnataka or West Bengal leaders care?

One can even ask, do even the people care? And yet, the resulting costs of ill-health, energy and labour to reach ever-so-distant water sources, are enormous and increasing daily. The urban wetland crisis, if Imayso call it, is eating away the entrails of Indian urban society. And it shows us that we no longer know how to govern ourselves, to manage our filth, and to live in harmony with our very life source. These are signs of a morbid society, which is reflecting itself in the sickness of our water systems.

A 3-person team from the Centre for Science and Environment travelled to Calcutta and various cities of central and south India, to study the state of India's urban wetlands. They encountered the same horrifying tale everywhere. But the fact of ecological destruction per se is not so horrifying, as much of this is reversible. But the fact tha; very few care, is indeed, far more horrifying.

The most dramatic contrasts are seen in Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan: one receives on an average, 15,000 mm of rainfall every year, and another - just 100-200 mm of rainfall. There is surely no camparison between the 2 places. How far the dysfunction between water and society can go, is exemplified by this case. Cherrapunji, one of the wettest places on earth, receives the full force of the moisture-laden monsoon clouds from the Bay of Bengal. But today, due to a massive drinking water shortage in Cherrapunji, the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission- a national programme deal- ing with water problems - is supporting its mter-strapped villages.

Jaisalmer of the past cared for its water sources and survived long droughts by carefully collecting, storing and using water. The city site was, in fact, carefully chosen keeping in mind the threat of invasions and availability of water. The residents built a glorious and fabulously wealthy city around its limited water resources. Today, Jaisalmer is wearing off that part of its culture, and is becoming increasingly dependent on groundwater - the last resort in the desert.

Cherrapunji and Jaisalmer together tell Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras - all megacities -that God may shower riches on us in plenty, but if we can't live with them respectfully, they will forsake us.

The answers lie riot in Mother Nature, but in the nature of the societies we construct. Those few NGos and individuals from Calcutta to Bangalore and Madras who are trying to reverse the trend - while the rest don't even care - deserve our full support and respect. They are the true leaders of India.

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