India's Water Crisis: An Interview with Author Nitya Jacob

By Frederick Noronha

DELHI, India, May 26, 2008 (ENS) – Former business and environmental journalist Nitya Jacob has undertaken an unusual task – an ecological travelogue across the Indian subcontinent focused on water.

Environmental journalist and
author Nitya Jacob

The Delhi-based writer’s findings are stark. After writing a book on the subject, he says that in spite of surplus water, and one of the world’s richest traditions of managing it, India’s water crisis has reached critical levels.

Jacob’s new book is called “Jalyatra: Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems.” In it he observes, “The 5,000 years worth of traditional knowledge which made India one of the richest countries in the not-too-distant past has been forgotten and is one of the main reasons behind the crisis.”

FN: How would you describe the book?

NJ: It’s an ecological travelogue that looks at links between water, society and places in an easy-to-read manner.

This book places water resources in the local environmental and social context. It does so to make the case that water management evolved in keeping with local conditions to serve local populations.

Sometimes water works were undertaken to employ people. But these were usually constructed to ensure there was enough water for agriculture and human consumption, to tide over years when rains failed. The book also brings out the cultural and religious links with water in India.

FN: Why focus on water at all?

NJ: Life began in water and we use it for everything – drinking, breathing, eating, bathing, farming, manufacturing, clothing, etc. It’s one of the four life forces. But we disrespect it, and I wanted to change that.

FN: What inspired you to take up this task, on a matter so many take for granted?

NJ: I have been writing on the environment for several years, and during my time at [India's premier environmental magazine] “Down To Earth,” I got a glimpse at the diversity of water resources in India.

Drawing water from the Ganges River at
Varanasi (Photo by Michael Matlach)

During this time, I was in touch with several people working on water who are mentioned in the book, including Rajender Singh and Ramesh Pahadi.

From them, I heard about the centuries-old water structures and the way people used to revere water and use it carefully.

This diversity prompted me to suggest the idea to my friend Karthika in Penguin, who told me to write a book. Once I started, it was a fascinating journey from water to water.

It was hard to decide which states to select, as each has very different traditions.

FN: What was the three most surprising finds from the book?

NJ: Firstly, the sheer diversity of water wisdom as reflected in the types of water management structures. Secondly, the depth of knowledge that the ancients had about constructing water structures. Thirdly, the extent to which water was respected as the giver and destroyer of life are the three most surprising finds from the book.

FN: What do you see as the major lessons that emerge?

NJ: We have to respect water and not treat it as a commodity or something to be merely consumed. We have done this for too long, and our thinking has been shaped by a Westernized education system. Those ‘ignorant peasants’ know more about this than most engineers today.

With respect comes the desire to use water wisely, to conserve it and protect its sources. This becomes an almost religious pursuit.

Chand Ki Baoli, a 1,500 year old step
well in Rajasthan (Photo
courtesy Nitya Jacob)

There is ample evidence to show that religion and water are interlinked. Each temple has a source of water, each mosque has a pond for washing, each gurudwara has a pond, and churches have the baptism fonts. No place of worship is complete without a source of water.

India’s diverse eco-agro-climatic-social zones have evolved their own systems, that if restored, can meet a large part of the need of people for drinking water and farming. We have to carry the past along, not bury it in dams and canals. There is a meeting point, that requires thinking through and dialogue.

By the same argument, water resources management has to become localized and community-driven. Large centralized construction and maintenance systems cannot work in the long run because they are costly, inequitable, do not involve local people and are always seen as exploitative, which is why most pipes leak.

Water management is as much a social-cultural issue as it is an environmental and technical one. But this has always been ignored in modern solutions. As far as possible, social structures and mechanisms that governed water resource use have to be mapped onto modern technical solutions and technology that does not fit social needs has to go.

For too long we have tried the reverse approach; it’s time to change that.

Society has become lazy and adopted the government-will-provide attitude. If the water supply is disrupted, or canals do not have water at a particular time, people blame the government.

I have found the willingness to take the initiative and help ourselves within the law is lacking. Civil society cannot expect the government, to provide because what it provides is waste and misused. The government has a new-found willingness, at nearly all levels, to engage with people and the public has to push the envelope.

FN: How would you describe the water situation in India today?

NJ: We are in a crisis of our own making but things haven’t gone out of control yet. We have plenty of water, but people have abdicated their role in looking after these resources to the government.

Part of the problem has to do with supply – the only solution the government has is large projects because the lure of lucre. The other part is demand, and we expect 24×7 supplies of water without lifting a finger. And we also waste water when we have it.

Child filling water vessels
(Photo by Frederick Noronha)

Farmers over-irrigate because nobody has told them how much water is really needed to optimize food production. None of the farmers I spoke to had any idea how much water is actually needed because all farm extension workers or seed and fertilizer sellers tell them is the amount of fertilizer and pesticides needed, not water.

In cities that suck up water resources from miles around, supply pipes leak or are tapped by the poor, while the rich water lawns and dig ever-deeper tubewells. They put pumps on the water mains to suck out water.

We are greedy and driven by the shortage mindset, when actually we need to watch what we are using. Industrial use is masked because they depend heavily on tankers and groundwater, both of which are tough to monitor. But industry believes the show must go on and therefore sources water regardless of quality or cost.

Then we have the burgeoning water and soft drinks industry. I must have travelled 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) and visited hundreds of villages, and always drank water that was available there, sourced from wells, handpumps, streams, tanks and tubewells.

I didn’t fall sick. The soft drinks/bottled water industry would have us believe we have poison coming out of our taps that also tastes bad, and therefore we must buy their water. That is utter bullshit.

Low cost purification – filtration or boiling – is more than enough to safeguard our health at home and while traveling. Almost all towns have the candle-water filters.

In any case, there have been plenty of tests on bottled water that have shown they are as contaminated with bacteria as regular tap water that has been filtered. The crisis then is of perceptions, supply and demand. But we haven’t reached the tipping point yet.

FN: Tell us something about your own past connections with water.

NJ: As a child, I enjoyed tub baths but felt a pang of guilt at the hundreds of liters of water I wasted in every bath. I’ve enjoyed the seaside whenever I have had the luxury of visiting it.

Cow and man each satisfy their thirst at
a railway station at Dhanbad.
(Photo by Anubrata Karmakar)

As a child I would cup my hands over my ears and pretend to listen to the sound of the sea, like a voice in the sky. When I started journalism as a sub-editor/reporter in a business paper, I used to pay particular attention to water.

In 1990, Intach launched a campaign against the Tehri Dam, and I visited the site. The appalling destruction overshadowed everything else – it was a moonscape where the river flowed and the hills were denuded.

That was the first practical wake up call I got and later, in “Down To Earth,” and since then I have followed water-related subjects with particular interest. I have known Rajender Singh since 1992 and have followed his work closely as well.

In 1992, I toured the entire Narmada valley that’s now under water. I wrote on that for “Down To Earth.”

Since then, off and on I have written on water and, for the past three years, have been closely involved with it. I am now the resource person for the Water Community of Solution Exchange that discusses issues related to water – governance, water resources management, drinking water, sanitation and water use in agriculture.

FN: Which states, in your view, are doing the most interesting work on water in India today?

NJ: If you refer to the governments, Tamil Nadu has initiated a lot of work on rainwater harvesting and tank regeneration. If you rate it in terms of people’s initiatives, there have been very successful attempts to revive water harvesting in both Gujarat and Rajasthan, because of the severe shortage of drinking water, fluoride contamination and salinity in groundwater.

The interesting part of these initiatives is community involvement where community management structures have been successfully mapped onto the revival program.

FN: What are the biggest challenges on the water front that India currently faces in your view?

NJ: Mismanagement of water resources, pollution from natural and manmade sources, and increasing disparities in availability due to changing rainfall, and shrinking surface storage and rivers being tapped at various points.

Nitya Jacob’s book, “Jalyatra: Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems,” is available from Penguin Books, India, 2008, Rs 295.

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