Sunday, January 10, 2010

A water-less future

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 10, 2009

Water wars are not a figment of sci-fi imagination. Access to water will define the gap between the rich and the poor…

The trend in urban development is more waste and less conservation...

photo: N. Sridharan

Common resource?Water at a premium for some....

Can you manage a family of five or more on four buckets of water day? That is a maximum of 80 litres a day. Not per person but for five people. Therefore, 20 litres per person per day. And then there are days when there is not a drop of water. This is the challenge facing millions of people, not in a water-deprived desert area but in Mumbai, the city with the best supply of water of any city in India.

So if people predict that the next water wars in this decade will take place not between nations but between communities in our cities, they are not far off the mark. The wars will be between the poor, the most deprived, and between the rich and the poor. The rich will also suffer water cuts, as they already do. But they will manage without having to face too much hardship because they will always have the ability to hoard, store and buy water. The poor, on the other hand, will get less than they already do, which is little enough. And without permanent housing, they will never have the same ability to store water, as do those who live in puccabuildings. So the gap between the rich and the poor will be defined through access to water.

Increased burden

With this scarcity, the burden on women will increase, as it already has. Receding water tables and decreasing snow melt have forced millions of women, in deserts and mountain regions, in villages and towns, to work harder to find water. Somehow they must fulfil their principal duties of washing, cleaning, cooking — and so they scrounge and beg, and walk longer distances to fetch that one, two or three buckets of precious water.

The other reality that is emerging is how, in times of scarcity, no one wants to share, be generous, least of all those who have enough. Housing societies in Mumbai, for instance, are making rules not allowing “outsiders” from taking out water from the buildings. These “outsiders” are actually the “insiders”, the domestic help in all our homes without whom our lives would be really difficult. They are the people who cook and clean and wash. They do this in homes where water flows through taps. And then when they finish work, they go out of the buildings to their homes in a slum where there are days without a drop of water. Yet, we feel justified in denying such people water at times of acute need. There is no culture in the world that defends the denial of water to a thirsty or needy person. Yet, the urban middle class ethos is defending just this.

Islands of indulgence

Islanded from this growing reality of the water crisis are also the gated communities and “future cities” that bore down and pull up the common resource from underground water springs, unmindful of the impact on people dependent on these streams. As a result, people who always had enough for their needs are now the needy while those with the financial resources to build these new urban islands feel no compunction in justifying the wasteful use of what they like to call “their” water. While their pools and fountains never run dry, the villages around them wonder why their wells have no water.

These are times where we need to learn from those who survive on practically no water, or very little. There are hundreds of examples in India of traditional communities who have survived on very little. Yet, their example is rarely heeded. Instead, the trend in urban development, particularly, is more waste and less conservation based on a totally unrealistic understanding of the availability of water as a common resource.

There is one community that can certainly teach us, and the whole world, the value of water. And that is the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. A fascinating book on water that those planning our water policy should read is Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Droughtby James G. Workman (published by Walker Publishing Co., New York, 2009). Workman, an international water expert, studied the Bushmen in the heart of the Kalahari Desert in present-day Botswana. And he realised that these are the real water experts. The situation in which the Bushmen survived is something we cannot imagine. Yet survive they did, until non-Bushmen decided to cut off their access of water and forced them to move.

An ethics of sharing

Workman describes the Bushmen “code of conduct” with regard to water. It “allows people to negotiate informally over the water resources they require, reaching out to partners with whom to exchange if and when they need more or less. People increased supply by efficiently reducing demands, and the benevolent result of their integrated informal right to water brought Bushmen into a relative state of social abundance.”

A wonderful phrase — “state of social abundance”. Instead what we are seeing in our cities is precisely the opposite because of an ethos that despises generosity and sharing. Explaining further the Bushmen's approach to the crisis of water, Workman writes:

Prepared for extreme deprivation, Kalahari Bushmen chose the hard responsibility of a dry reality over a government-dependent fantasy of water abundance. Outside of their reserve the so-called civilised world found that for all our military might and Internet bandwidth, certain things still lie beyond our grasp. We discover we cannot ‘regulate' our climate, clouds or rain. Out here, while elected leaders kneel to pray for a thundershower that will provide temporary relief, the increasingly dry hot wind whistles through the thorn trees in the central Kalahari and whispers the ancient secret those last defiant Bushmen never forgot. We don't govern water. Water governs us.”

Indeed, water will govern us. It will also determine whether we can be a humane society.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

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