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January 17, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Water Wars: Cauvery, Chinatown and Cadillac Desert

The Northeast monsoon was scanty on the Coromandel Coast in 1999, and the Cauvery waters dispute will rear its ugly head again: there is indeed a real problem, in addition to the bruised amour-propre of politicians in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Water is a critically important issue: and water rights are a zero-sum game. What is most interesting is not how to divvy up the existing supply, but how to ensure that there will be an assured supply in the future.

For fresh water is one of the most precious commodities on earth; entire civilizations have been destroyed because of the lack of water. For example, it is now clear that the Indus-Sarasvati civilization (also known as the Harappan civilization) declined precipitously because of a shift in river patterns. The Sarasvati in fact dried up and disappeared completely circa 2000 BCE, as it lost its feeder rivers to the Indus and the Ganges due to a tectonic movement.

Similarly, the Inca civilization of the high Andes in Bolivia and Chile, with its abandoned pyramidal temples, was the victim of a sustained drought that destroyed their agriculture. Despite all the advances of modern science and technology, we remain susceptible to the vagaries of the rains.

Remember the US's Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when drought devastated a large swath of the country, causing massive displacement (eg, the 'Okie' economic refugees in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath) and enormous hardship? California suffered through seven continuous years of drought in the '80s and '90s, and through excessive El Nino rains in 1998.

It is possible the make the case that the wars in West Asia between Israel and its Arab opponents is primarily about water, not about religion. There is a school of thought that suggests that control over the Jordan river and the Nile is the primary objective: river water is literally the elixir of life in those parts. Israel has succeeded in making the Negev desert bloom through drip-irrigation techniques and water management techniques -- these might be good role models for India.

On average, India is blessed with sufficient water, but its temporal and spatial distribution is uneven -- contrast rainy Kerala with the arid Thar Desert, for instance. In Ecology and Equity (Penguin India), Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha estimate that, including the monsoon and runoff from the Himalayas, the country receives an average of 4,200 billion cubic meters of water every year.

This works out to roughly 4,500 cubic meters per person, which, statistically speaking, is not bad at all. Of course, the bulk of the rain is in the monsoon months, and water conservation and rainwater harvesting is not widespread yet. And that really is the problem.

Compared to, say, China, India does have enough water: I read somewhere that it is 11 litres per head per day in China vs 37 litres in India. My friend Arun Kumar from Palo Alto asked me why Indians didn't seek lebensraum outside India through conquest: and this is one of the reasons. India has water; and India's land is much better than China's -- 57 per cent of India's land is arable, while only 10 per cent of China's and Tibet's is.

Irrigation systems have existed in the Indian subcontinent for many years. In the north, there is evidence of Mauryan era irrigation works dating back 2,000 years. In the south, tens of thousands of tanks and canals were constructed in Pandya/Chola times perhaps 1500 years ago, for instance the Grand Anicut. Some of these are still in place.

In Sri Lanka, I believe it was Parakramabahu who built a giant system of canals to channel water across the central mountains to the rain-shadow region. The Mughals also constructed such systems on the Yamuna. However, many of these have fallen into disuse over time.

Water has been a major issue in the arid American West too. There is a very interesting book, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner that chronicles the tales of political intrigue, engineering miracles and environmental catastrophe that relates to the search for water. There was a 1997 PBS documentary based on this book. See the homepage at

Reisner's metaphor is the image of several Cadillacs stuck vertically into the desert, as a bizarre monument of sorts somewhere in the West. The struggle for human survival in semi-desert conditions of this inhospitable terrain is very much predicated on the availability of water. Indeed, Los Angeles in particular, situated in a dry dust-bowl, with no nearby source of fresh water, is entirely a creation of the successful, and ruthless, search for water.

The brilliant film-noir, Chinatown (superb performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway) fictionalizes this tale of intrigue: far-sighted Los Angelenos, realizing that if the city were to grow, they needed to find water somewhere, zeroed in on the Owens Valley, some 250 miles east. In an astonishing, almost unbelievable coup, Los Angeles 'persuaded' the people of the valley to sell their rights to the water of the Owens River.

Fifty years later, Los Angeles is the biggest city on the West Coast, and the Owens Valley is a desert, completely robbed of all its water. Furthermore, there are aqueducts criss-crossing the Californian landscape that bring water from the high Sierras in Northern California, and the Colorado River, all the way to LA so that Angelenos can enjoy their swimming pools -- something that really upsets Northern Californians, but that's a story for another time.

Even though we love to hate the uncouth parvenu Angelenos, it is a fact that the most profligate users of water in California are not city-dwellers, but farmers in the Central Valley. For, in the deserts of California, they are cultivating thirsty crops such as rice! This is because of price distortions and federal subsidies -- it makes economic sense for the farmers to over-use water.

Furthermore, there is tremendous environmental degradation -- an example is Kesterton Lake where the nesting birds have been decimated because of selenium poisoning. Runoff from the desert fields leached salts into the lake, effectively destroying it. Another is Mono Lake, where the water levels have fallen by some 20 to 30 feet, leaving huge toofah towers in a bizarrely beautiful landscape.

The situation is similar all across the arid American West and Southwest -- water wars all over. And depletion of aquifers or underground water tables. For instance, the Ogallala aquifer, which is a vast underground sea below the US Southwest, is being depleted at an alarmingly high rate. The long-term consequences of such mining are unknown -- the entire aquifer may disappear in 50 years; perhaps there will be a massive encroachment of salt water. The possibilities are frightening.

A new book entitled Water Wars, by Marq de Villiers (Weidenfeld and Nicholson), describes the catastrophes that indiscriminate dam-building has wrought -- for example, the giant Aswan High Dam, which holds back the Nile, is also holding back the life-giving flooding and silting of the delta. All that mud has now accumulated at the dam itself, shortening its life. Similarly, the new Three Gorges Dam on China's Yellow River will likely turn into an environmental catastrophe.

The Farakka Barrage has become a big bone of contention between India and Bangladesh -- the latter alleging that India does not send enough water downstream in lean times, and too much water in times of flood.

Thus, I am in two minds about the Narmada Bachao Andolan. I have great respect for Medha Patkar, who has led the struggle against the giant dam project; but surely, there is also merit to the proposition put forth about the availability of water to the large and thirsty stretches of land in the riparian areas.

Without getting into a pro-dam or anti-dam argument, it is important to look at the long view. What seems entirely obvious and sensible is the idea that water should be conserved; and that rainwater should be harvested. Instead of letting rainwater just run off to the sea (80 per cent does today), taking with it precious topsoil as well, it is possible through conservation to effect proper usage of runoff, revitalizing underground aquifers as well.

Those who have properly conserved their water, through ancient systems of terraces -- for instance, consider the highly picturesque and extremely productive hillside farms of Bali, Indonesia -- have reaped the benefits of good management.

This is precisely what has been done by the Tarun Bharat Sangh in the desert Northwest, and by the Swadhyaya group of Pandurang Athavale in Maharashtra. According to to Kamla Chowdhry, founder-chairperson of the National Wasteland Development Board, Swadhyaya used rainwater harvesting to recharge 94,465 wells and 208 dry lakes. Similarly, "Satya Sai Baba has been able to arrange and organize availability of water in every single village of Anantapur district -- a promise made by the government 40 to 50 years ago and finally redeemed by Sai Baba."

There are other success stories: Madhya Pradesh enlisted 300 villages in a drought-prone tribal district.

'In just four years, with a tiny investment of $ 3.3 million, distress migration has stopped,' said Digvijay Singh, the chief minister, according to an Associated Press report in November 1998. In addition to catchment areas, the government planted trees and grass to hold the water in the ground and recharge underground water tables, turning the area green.

In Madras, which is perennially short of water, the city now mandates the building of rooftop rainwater tanks for any new house under construction. Pipes siphon the water from the roof to pits in the ground, covered with stone, bricks and sand.

In many ways, we are rediscovering ancient techniques that have fallen into disuse. India has been hit with a double whammy -- many of the traditional 'tanks', canals, etc were thrown into disuse by British commercial interests, which dictated that they should control water supplies meant especially for cash crops. Furthermore, after Independence, the construction of huge water projects encouraged people to abandon their wells, ponds, etc. Unfortunately as much as 60 per cent of these grand projects were never completed due to a lack of funds.

Without creative ways of managing runoff, India will be in dire straits -- for I believe the water table has fallen dramatically as large underground aquifers are being drained by borewells for large-scale irrigation and residential usage. For instance, in Bangalore, the depth at which borewells yield water has increased precipitously -- in direct proportion to the exploding population in the city.

India's per capita availability of fresh water has already declined rapidly due to population pressure and increasing industrial demands. The United Nations estimates that by 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world's population will suffer from moderate to severe water shortages. If India is to escape this -- and the water wars that will surely follow -- there needs to be a sustained campaign for the management of rainwater and runoff.

Postscript: I got a lot of e-mail on my column on Microsoft. Most people suggested that it was a reasonably balanced column. Others, however, including my old schoolmates Narayan M and Vinod G took exception with my characterizing Microsoft as lacking in innovation; and also pointed out that the company was an engine of the economy.

The Financial Times also recently pointed out in their annual survey of most admired companies that Microsoft was second only to General Electric in their list: the others being Coca-cola, IBM, DaimlerChrysler, Sony, Dell, Nestle, Walmart, Toyota, HP and Intel. So many IT companies!

Rajeev Srinivasan

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