October 11, 2002


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Rajeev Srinivasan

The River sutra

It is a truism that water is the elixir of life. Therefore it is not surprising that the earliest civilisations generally appeared near river systems: the Indus-Sarasvati, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Nile, the Yellow River. As humans transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers, it goes without saying that an assured source of water was critically important. Naturally, the great cities of antiquity also sprung up near rivers: for, rivers are perfect for water-borne trade. Today, despite railways and roads, much cargo is ferried up and down rivers; and despite great water-works, we continue to be heavily dependent on rivers for life-giving water for agriculture and urban consumption.

Riparian areas have become centers of civilisation for purely economic reasons too. For, the surplus generated by intensive agriculture can be used to sustain a culture where not everybody has to be a subsistence farmer. There is enough wealth to support warriors, artists, traders, scientists, writers, priests, architects, and so forth. This is famously true of the Nile delta where flooding left a precious alluvium of new topsoil every year.

Similarly, the Cauveri delta supported the cultural flowering of the Cholas: those immense temple towers at Srirangam and Chidambaram and Gangaikondacholapuram, the expeditions of Rajaraja Chola to the Indonesian archipelago, and those sublime Chola bronzes of Thanjavur, are directly attributable to, and financed by, the diligent Tamil farmer and artisan. And as late as the colonial era, the Cauveri delta (Tamil Nadu) and the Brahmaputra delta (Bengal) were among the four greatest centers of industrial production in the world.

Ancient Indians did recognise the importance of their rivers as literally the lifeblood of the nation. Hence the great honour and respect given to them in Hindu scriptures. See, for example, the sloka:

Gange cha! Yamune chiava! Godavari! Sarasvati!
Narmade! Sindhu! Kaveri! Jale asmin sannidhim kuru!

In this water, I invoke the presence of holy waters from The rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Cauvery!

The divinity attributed to the sacred rivers such as the Sarasvati, the Ganga, the Cauveri, and the Narmada has perhaps helped us manage and preserve them. The Rg Veda speaks often about the mighty river Sarasvati, as broad as the ocean. In the story of Indra's slaying of the water-demon Vrtra, we see the damming of the river and its subsequent release. Pilgrims even today undertake the arduous trek to Gaumukh, the origin of the Ganga/Bhagirathi, even though the glacier that gives rise to the river has receded eighteen kilometers away from the original temple to Ganga built millennia ago at the then source, Gangotri.

The Sarasvati, along whose banks the bulk of the settlements of the Indus-Sarasvati (Harappan) civilisation can be found, dried up circa 2000 BCE, after an earthquake caused its tributaries to be captured by other rivers, the Sutlej by the Indus, and the Yamuna by the Ganga. The Indus-Sarasvati civilisation declined precipitously thereafter, and its next flowering was hundreds of years later, in the Gangetic Plain to the east. The river died, and so almost did the civilisation; this is a cautionary tale for us. (For more details, see Michel Danino, The Invasion That Never Was, Mother's Institute of Research, Nilgiris, 2001, also see

There are those who still remember the long-lost river. The Gauda Saraswat Brahmins of the Konkan coast, Sarasvati's children, still recall that immense river, whose course was eight kilometers wide in parts.

Much later, on the banks of the Tungabhadra at present-day Hampi, the capital city of the Vijayanagar empire flourished: at its peak, it was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. The city, situated in an arid area, was entirely dependent on the life-giving river for its very existence.

But in modern times, we are clearly abusing our rivers. In Kerala, for instance, storied rivers such as the Pamba, the Nila, and the Periyar, are all dying because of sand mining, rainforest destruction, and pollution. I fear that one of these days, our rivers will be so polluted that they will catch fire, as the rivers in Cleveland (Cuyahoga) and Pittsburgh (Allegheny?) used to do periodically until they embarked on a massive clean-up drive.

Growing up in watery Kerala, dominated by backwaters, beautiful and practical at the same time -- the milk run on the old ferryboat between Alappuzha and Kollam is one of the true journeys of a lifetime -- I never knew what it meant to not have water. The tap water in Trivandrum was plentiful and sweet; and when we went to the village, there was abundant well-water, the only catch was that we had to pull it by hand, and that too was eased when they invested in pump-sets. During the monsoons, the little streams would overflow their banks, and my cousin and I would wade in carrying our bicycles over our heads, safe from the brown, rampaging waters.

I realise now how lucky I was. The United Nations estimated that 60 per cent of Indians suffer from a lack of access to clean water, and this number is increasing. And it is not as though we don't get enough water: India is blessed with more than enough rainfall, and if only we managed our water better, we would be in much better shape.

I was first exposed to the lack of water when I was a student at IIT Madras. Chennai, then as now, suffered from a lack of water, and hostelmates used to keep a sharp eye on us "hydrophilic" Malayalis who were prone to take long showers. In the summers, there would be big red worms in the water, and we would tie cloth filters to the taps to prevent the worms from coming through. It is even worse now, I am told.

Later, I lived through several years of drought in California: the state encourages overuse by farmers through skewed pricing schemes. But the drought showed me how, even in a technologically advanced society, humans are vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather gods. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s is not just a distant memory, it can recur in the US.

I wrote a column Water Wars: Cauvery, Chinatown and Cadillac Desert a couple of years ago about how the Cauvery water showdown then between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was merely a symptom of the kinds of problems we are likely to face in future regarding the availability of fresh water. Today, this particular rift has taken on far graver proportions: Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are practically on the verge of war. At least one person has become a martyr to this cause by jumping into a reservoir in protest. This is causing simmering chauvinistic feelings among Kannadigas and Tamils to come to the fore, which is unfortunate.

However, there is no simple answer to the question of whether Karnataka should release more water or not. The Supreme Court has come up with an answer; but this is a strictly legalistic interpretation of certain treaties, which may or may not have been signed with full consideration of all the consequences. For instance, the folks in the Owens Valley in California never dreamt they were signing the death knell of their valley when they transferred water rights to a thirsty Los Angeles in the 1920s. There is no equitable solution in the case of the Cauvery: for it is a zero-sum game, and demand has risen in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. To expect the river to continue to meet everyone's needs is to delude ourselves.

This is not a local problem alone, incidentally. Water will become, according to some experts, the main reason for wars in many places. For water is much more precious than that other coveted fluid, petroleum: after all, you cannot drink petroleum, nor can you grow crops with it. There is the interesting conjecture that the West Asian wars are really about control over the waters of the Jordan River.

Behind all the religious rhetoric, there is a rational reason for Pakistan's desire to control Kashmir: the waters of the Indus. Today, Pakistan has good reason to feel vulnerable: if India, which controls the headwaters of the Indus, were to divert them, Pakistan would in effect turn into a desert. It is a different matter that India would find it rather difficult to deal with all that water: where can it be diverted to fruitfully, and how? There have been reports recently about how the Pakistanis are attempting to melt glaciers in their control in the Siachen area by covering them with coal and thus increasing the solar heat absorption. Short-sighted? Certainly. Once the glacier is gone, there might be no more water, period. These are not harvestable resources, but ones that need husbanding.

There is an immensely frightening prospect along similar lines. The Chinese now control the Tibetan plateau. And the major rivers of the Asia generally rise from Tibet. For instance, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy (or Airavati), the Mekong. And the Chinese have an ambitious programme to divert the waters of all these rivers up north to their thirsty interior provinces. If this is done, Northern India, Bangladesh, upper Burma and all the riparian states of the Mekong, including Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, will rapidly turn into deserts. Given the nature of the Chinese government, they will use this fact to blackmail all of these countries.

This is perhaps the greatest threat from the Chinese colonisation of Tibet, that "chacha" Nehru acquiesced to so easily. In addition to pointing nuclear missiles at India from the Tibetan highlands, in addition to decimating the culture and population of Tibet and swamping it with ethnic Han Chinese immigrants, in addition to inundating it with nuclear waste, in addition to destroying the entire fauna of Tibet by ruthlessly shooting it, they are in position to devastate the fertility of the entire Ganga-Brahmaputra doab. If this is not a threat to national security, I do not know what is. There are people in India who are talking seriously of the Ganga-Cauvery linkup to share the overflow in the northern rivers with the arid Deccan and the Coromandel coast; but as Tibetologist and Sinologist Claude Arpi points out, the Chinese are making rapid progress on their plans to divert the rivers. We may end up having to pump Cauvery water north!

Therefore, India is vulnerable on several counts. Current usage patterns are unsustainable, as the water table is falling swiftly in many parts of India. The problems in Bangalore and Chennai with dried-up wells are legendary. On a visit to the utopian community of Auroville, I was told that the over-use of groundwater, possibly even by Neyveli Lignite not far from there, is causing aquifers to run dry and also causing the land to subside. I was reminded of sinkholes in Texas from the over-use of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The only answer seems to be rainwater harvesting. In some ways, this is not a perfect solution -- nothing is, I suppose, other than conservation and reduction of use -- as it may cause problems for the dams and weirs downstream: if the water is captured locally, it may not recharge aquifers further down. But it is the best bet we have today, for as much as 80 per cent of the needs of a family can be met by capturing the rain that falls on their house, even in relatively rain-sparse areas.

The efforts of the Tarun Bharat Sangh and its founder Rajendra Singh in this regard are notable. There is a detailed story about them on the Good News India site. Instead of depending on large dams whose efficacy is questionable, they focused on local knowledge and local cooperation in building small-scale waterworks. They have succeeded in recharging a number of lakes, and they have made some of the rugged Aravalli hills bloom again with forest cover; most significantly, they have made some seasonal rivers perennial! This is remarkable, and encouraging.

There are efforts now under way in various places to do rainwater harvesting on a larger scale. From the IIT Madras mailing lists, I understand that there is a project called Akash Ganga, the brainchild of a US-based alumnus, which attempts to provide know-how about the techniques of rainwater harvesting to homeowners all over Chennai. There are pilot projects in two of the hostels to reduce the dependency on trucked-in water: apparently each hostel has to buy several truckloads of water (which of course is of uncertain quality) every day.

I am sure that all of these efforts could use funding, so I would request you, gentle reader, to donate generously. This is the only way forward, until and unless we ever arrive at a point when solar energy gets to be so cheap that sea-water desalination becomes economically feasible. At least coastal cities in the tropics will be able to afford it. Today, even affluent Singapore is forced to purchase water from Malaysia rather than attempting to desalinate sea-water.

The current imbroglio between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is a mere side-show: it merely makes for fine grandstanding. But the solution is in the hands of the people: each of us have to conserve and harvest.

The Cauvery Water Dispute

Rajeev Srinivasan

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