Once a natural resource, water is now big business. The time is coming when human beings will wage war over water
Parched people The acute shortage of water will change our lives in years to come.
Once we worshipped water. Once water was a community resource. People drew water from a common well. And then the cities began to get water in their taps. We assumed we owned the water that flowed through our taps and flushes. A hundred years from now, history will look back at our generation and say, “They forgot to worship water. They fundamentally altered the ecosystem and harmony of the most precious resource on earth. Till the water turned against them, and thirst became the most fundamental fear that drove huge migrations of populations.”
In my teens, I would go to my uncle’s farm in Punjab. My favourite place there was the tubewell. On a hot summer afternoon, I would turn it on and sit under the gushing water, cooling myself for as long as I wanted.
Earlier… In Delhi’s Nizamuddin West. My grandfather’s vegetable patch. Standing proud in the middle was the handpump. Just one downward stroke and cool water would flow out. My sister and I would take it in turns to splash each other and drench ourselves under the running water until my grandfather would chase us away, trying to stop us from ruining his carefully laid garden.
The handpump is now a museum piece.
The farm is gone. The pump is no longer powerful enough to compete with the larger ones of the factory that sprouted a few kilometres from the farm. But my uncle did not lose any money. He sold his land to the real estate developer. On a recent visit, I discovered it to be a sprawling dry and dusty township supporting a factory spewing smoke into the air. No signs of the green farms for miles that I could once see from my vantage point under the gushing tubewell.
Where does the water come from now, I wondered, as I saw several water tankers. From other farms waiting to be gobbled up by the increasing demands of a concrete city? So where is the food going to come from in the future? I assume from packaged, industrialised systems instituted by retail multinationals as they gradually take over India’s centuries-old agricultural system.
I thought of Vinoba Bhave. Ingrained in my mind by my school as the Great Indian Hero, second only to Gandhi, his Bhoodan Movement so contrary to where the Indian agricultural system will be forced to go. Land going not from the wealthy to the poor, but swallowed in ever-swelling portions by those with capital.
Many years later, I heard the voice of a political leader much reviled in the upper echelons of urban Indian society, Chaudhary Devi Lal. “Those people who live in urban areas waste as much water in one flush of their toilets as your families get for the whole day.”
This one statement hit me hard. Not only because there was so much truth in it. Not only because it was stunning where we had come to, from the days of an assumed abundance of water to such an acute shortage. But because I was one of the culprits. I let water waste freely as I sat under the tubewell in my uncle’s farm. I flushed toilets without thinking twice.
That was over 15 years ago. My guilt drove me to know more. And my journey to a film began. I was amazed at the denial and ignorance that surrounded this issue. When Devi Lal first spoke those polemical words, the urban elite sniggered. But the more I researched the more I realised that even 15 years ago, we in India had crossed the danger point and were well into the territory of crisis. We were already a hugely water-stressed nation.
When I first mooted the idea of a film on water, everybody smiled indulgently and said no one would identify with it. India had a history of romantically inclined films revolving around monsoons and farmers, Lagaan being a recent instance. Yet, not one of these films addressed the fact that 65 percent of Indian agriculture and 85 percent of India’s drinking water depended on ‘groundwater’ resources.
On groundwater tables that were falling at alarming rates. A mere decade ago, you could hit groundwater at 10 feet; now, you have to drill 600 feet or more. Deforestation, laying of concrete would allow the rainwater to ‘run off’ and not seep through.
After a long battle, the UN declared in 2010 that clean water was a fundamental right of all citizens. Easier said than done. The essential, alarming question has become, ‘Who does the groundwater belong to?’ Coca Cola is still fighting a case in Kerala where the farmers rebelled against them for using groundwater for their bottling plants. The paddy fields for miles around dried up as water for Coke or the company’s branded bottled water was extracted and transported to richer urban consumers.
Who did that groundwater belong to? Who do our rivers belong to? To the rich and powerful who can afford the resources to draw water in huge quantities for their industries. Or pollute the rivers with effluent from their industries. Or transport water over huge distances at huge expense to turn it into profit in urban areas.
There is an argument that is made for the privatisation of water distribution (and, therefore, ownership). It goes like this: “Water is too precious a resource to allow people to use for free. Put a price on it and water will be subject to market forces, and its use and distribution will be far more efficient.”
The problem is, what price? For whatever reasonable market price you put on water, 70 percent of the people on this planet are unlikely to be able to afford it. The argument against privatisation is far stronger. Market forces will drive water to where it fetches the maximum price, not where it is most needed.
Whose water is it anyway?
In Mumbai, just across the road from Juhu Vile Parle Scheme, all the beautiful people and film stars live opposite a slum called Nehru Nagar. Once a day, or maybe even less, water arrives in tankers run by the local ‘water mafia’ and their goons. Women and children wait in line for a bucket of water, and fights break out as the tankers begin to run dry.
Yet, literally across the road, the ‘stars’ after their workouts in the gym or a day on a film set can stay in the shower for hours. The water will not stop flowing. Often at less than half the cost that the slum dwellers pay for a single bucket of water.
Whose water is it anyway?
Should you get more water than you need because you can afford to pay for it? Or is water a community resource meant to be distributed equally? Let’s be completely aware of something. The water you and I consume is at the cost of someone else, someone who needs it as much as we do. In fact, everything we consume has a virtual water cost to it. Throw away a pair of jeans to buy the latest fashionable ones, and you’d find yourself throwing away 6,000 litres of water, drawn from cotton-growing areas that could have been growing food. Cotton is known to be a ‘dirty water’ crop. It draws much more than it puts back. Everything we consume in our over-consumptive society has a water cost that is drying up our lands and creating thirst.
Whose water is it anyway?
While people congratulate me on making a film on the looming turmoil we are about to face through shortages and droughts, I wonder if I am already too late.
“We must make people aware of the problem,” they say.
Aware of the problem? Eighty-five percent of the people in India, and many similar numbers in other parts of the world, live under acute water-stressed conditions. We constantly talk about the education of the girl-child, without addressing the fact that in many rural belts across India the girl-child spends most of every day walking to a water source miles away just to fetch water. She leaves at dawn with a pitcher precariously balanced on her head only to return closer to sunset. That’s her life now as a child and it will continue to be so.
Who is not aware of the problem then? The urban creatures who still get water in taps? Well, not for long, I guess.
For as global warming affects monsoon and weather patterns. As the melting Himalayan glaciers cease to be the water reservoirs they have been for centuries. As China and India get into conflict over the Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra river. As the billion people who are no longer nurtured by the rivers that run off the Himalayan glaciers. As people in India, China and Bangladesh begin massive population movements in search of alternative sources of water. As groundwater is less and less nurtured by erratic monsoons. As droughts, such as the one in Maharashtra, are followed by massive floods. As the huge government-planned expenditure on water management lands straight into the pockets of politicians. As rivers are polluted beyond redemption. As our economists measure our wealth by increasing consumption, industrialisation and urbanisation with no thought to the rapid decline in our most fundamental resource. As the Holy Ganga no longer needs to be cleaned up because it has become a seasonal river, alternatively, flooding in its upper reaches and drying to a trickle in Varanasi.
As all this happens under our noses, must we wake up only when the government will have to go to war with its own people over water? For, by then, the thirsty shall have inherited the earth.
Shekhar Kapur is a Filmmaker. His film Paani will be released in 2014.