Sitranai at low flow time (C) SCI
To repeat, the dam understands and works with the seasonality of the Vaigai’s water: during low flow times, water is channelled by the dam into the tank system that supports irrigation around Madurai. During high flow, or floods, water passes over the dam into the main trunk of the river. That understanding of India’s water and a philosophy of trying to work with water (as opposed to trying to reshape it) led to the wealth of ancient Tamil kingdoms as showcased in Ponniyin Selvan. That understanding, and importantly that philosophy of working with nature is missing today, leading us to crisis.
Is this Flooding Unusual?
Level of Rainfall
Level of Search Interest
Why did this encroachment come about?There has been so much written about this, often and well, that I will not add to it, except to say, encroachment philosophies vary by who encroached.
“The rajakaluve here is 40 feet wide but, about 500 metres from here, has been narrowed down to just 10 feet by a big builder,” said Jagadish Reddy, who has lived in Marathahalli for decades. “They laid a slab over it for a road to their complex. We had complained several times and asked them to at least clear the silt under it, but they did not care even for the MLA.”-JAGADISH REDDY TO NEWS LAUNDRY.
Action on the encroachments
“By next monsoon, we’ve to clear all pending demolitions… all apartments will be led off, as you saw in Noida. Action to be against officials and builders.-SAID KARNATAKA REVENUE MINISTER, R. ASHOK.”,
“About 11 properties across Yelahanka, West and Mahadevapura zones have been bulldozed, while encroachments in West Zone and KR Puram, Shanthiniketan Layout and Challaghatta were cleared from rajakaluves…However, BBMP officials said only compound walls and gates are being removed, and asked the inmates to vacate in a week’s time, so they can complete the demolition.”-CITIZEN MATTERS, A REGIONAL NEWS PROVIDER.
“They [citizens of a democracy] have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity and guilt. Ignorance has a certain Dignity.”-SIR HUMPHREY APPLEBY, YES MINISTER.
“India is a tech hub for global enterprises, so any disruption here will have a global impact. Bangalore, being the centre of IT, will be no exception to this,” K.S. VISWANATHAN, VICE PRESIDENT OF NASSCOM, QUOTED IN THE MINT. ‘TRAFFIC, WATER SHORTAGES, NOW FLOODS; IS IT THE SLOW DEATH OF BENGALURU, INDIA’S TECH HUB?’ Even before the floods, some business groups including the Outer Ring Road Companies Association (ORRCA) that is led by executives from Intel, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Wipro, warned inadequate infrastructure in Bengaluru could encourage companies to leave. “We have been talking about these for years,” Krishna Kumar, general manager of ORRCA, said last week of problems related to Bengaluru’s infrastructure. “We have come to a serious point now and all companies are on the same page.” MINT. ‘TRAFFIC, WATER SHORTAGES, NOW FLOODS; IS IT THE SLOW DEATH OF BENGALURU, INDIA’S TECH HUB?’
Where has it flooded?
Why has it flooded?
Why here? Why now?
The low-lying areas (green & blue) have flooded first.
Source: https://en-gb.topographic-map.com/maps/lpj1/Bengaluru/; Flooded areas marked out in blue.
b. Land-use change – i.e., building over lakes/concretization/ blocking channels
c. Lack of maintenance of tanks (desilting/ declogging drains etc)
"The extent of the lake area varied in different records indicating reduction in lake area over a period of time. This was mainly due to grant of lake area for construction of roads; infrastructure and residential layouts; and change in land use. Also, encroachment of lake area caused choking/blocking of catchment drains, loss of foreshore area and wetland thereby leading to shrinkage in water spread area"
RainfallBengaluru has had a couple of years of good rains filling up lakes and groundwater levels. WRIS
Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai and an angel investor.
Within a year of its independence, India turned off a tap. The Indus water partition had left India in possession of the Ferozepur headworks that controlled the Indus water that fed Pakistan’s fields. Friction over Kashmir and water intertwined, and India cut off water supply for Lahore and 5.5% of Pakistani farmland in April 1948. This helped bring Pakistan to the table and a ceasefire soon followed. (Geo)politics is a core thread in India’s water tapestry, as are philosophy, technology and climate.
The geopolitics of the 1950s brought America to the subcontinent, and the US shaped India’s water in three ways. First, America’s Food for Peace programme habituated Indian palates and purses to cheap wheat. Second, the US helped India map and tap into its groundwater. Lastly, the World Bank brokered the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), allowing Pakistan to bypass the proverbial tap. What made India agree? Its monsoon failure in 1957 caused a balance-of-payments crisis. India needed World Bank assistance, which made it willing to compromise on the IWT. The second Indo-Pak war started shortly after the tap was bypassed.
In the mid-1960s, India’s volatile monsoon failed again. As famine loomed large, we paid a steep price for ‘cheap’ American wheat by agreeing to US-dictated policy terms. Desperate to become food independent, the country embarked upon its Green Revolution. Both the Minimum Support Price and the Food Corporation of India were born in this drought, and designed to make India’s farmers grow more food. But why encourage rice and wheat when most Indians ate millets — a grain uniquely suited to India’s volatile rains? Maybe colonial heritage shaped grain-choice. After all, rice and wheat were more suited to global trade (and quick cash) rather than the humbler millet. Technology (borewells to tap into groundwater) helped overcome the volatility of rains — at least for the bigger farmers. Groundwater’s allure lay in its convenience — flip a switch, and water appears. Its danger lies in its invisibility — because we can’t measure subsurface water, we think it endless, until, of course, it disappears. In the 1970s, a flat tariff for borewell electricity was cheapened and then removed. Over time, farmers have made India food secure, but the country paid a price. Today, in a single year, enough groundwater flows away from India’s dry northwest to meet the drinking water needs of India’s largest cities for 13 years! When groundwater runs out, where will that leave food security?
Borewells reshaped cities too. By bringing drinking water to flood plains and the periphery, the borewell overcame the lack of municipal capacity (and planning). Within cities too, water changed. The British declared that tanks (or lakes) harboured infection and should be filled — that they provided empty land in the heart of a city was purely a happy coincidence. Colonially trained bureaucrats continued in that belief and so, India’s city tanks were built over. The giant Long Tank in Chennai, where the Madras Boat club once held its winter regatta, has morphed into one of India’s biggest commercial districts. Few missed the tanks, as groundwater was still available and floods were still uncommon. But the tank-disappearance bomb had been lit, and it has been ticking away since.
Another ticking bomb in India’s shifting water tapestry is deforestation. The British, who saw Indian forests as unsold timber and potential agricultural land, cleared them and encouraged farmers to grow cash crops. But science shows that forest is intrinsic to shaping India’s rains — stabilising land on steep slopes where it rains heavily, reducing monsoonal flooding while increasing summer flow in rivers. Sadly, the British ethos still shapes how we value forests today. Over 60% of the value of forest area to be cleared rests in the timber value of trees, while the forest’s water services are essentially unpriced, making them appear cheaper to clear than they really are. A “water-is-free” ethos, plus the plentiful supply of ground water, retarded water management across the country.
But then, in the late 1980s, a powerful new thread — climate change — entered India’s water tapestry. With oceans hotter and skies warmer, the number of rain days fell, storms and rainfall intensified. Without tanks to absorb the deluge or forests to moderate the flow, floods and landslides became more potent and more commonplace. Dry regions began running out of water — like Alwar in the 1980s, or Chennai in the summer of 2019. To conserve groundwater, Punjab passed a law in 2009 that delayed paddy planting. But that delay shrank the gap between paddy harvest and wheat sowing. The fastest way to clear the fields was to burn them, adding to northern India’s air pollution spike in winter.
In 75 years, India has become wealthier and food secure, but water insecure. The future is frightening with China, sea-level rise and pollution entering the picture, but are we scared enough to see the unique nature of our water and manage it as it desperately needs?
Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai and an angel investor.
A few business leaders “get” it and are proactive in managing their exposure, some see it as a cost of doing business, and the rest don’t get it - a singularly foolish thing to do in a water-scare country which is rapidly heating up.
In Watershed: How We Destroyed India's Water and How We Can Save It, author Mridula Ramesh makes a case for water management to avert not just the impending water crisis but also a potential financial crisis brought on by water scarcity. She traces the 4,000-year history of water in India, to contextualise the current problems and offer solutions that might be good for the environment, good for society and good for business.
Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute and an angel investor (she has also previously authored The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do about It).
In an email interview, Ramesh explained how our relationship to water has become dysfunctional, what industry and individuals can do about it, and how she measures the climate impact of the start-ups she invests in.
You've said that our relationship to water has become dysfunctional. Could you give an example?
What lies at the heart of a dysfunctional relationship? A lack of understanding for the other party, and a lack of respect. We don’t understand our water in India – else why we would we grow a crop (paddy) that needs more than 1,240 mm of water in a place that gets between 400 to 600 mm of water (Punjab/Haryana)? The groundwater that bridges this water gap is free – such undervalued groundwater is used with abandon and depleting fast.
Another example is that why would we chop down the forests on slopes that receive metres of rainfall in a few months – after all, without the stabilizing influence of forests, those slopes can and do slide down during the torrential rains.
Based on your research, what are some of the reasons why there isn’t enough urgency about water management – after all, we’ve been reading for years about frothing lakes, flooding cities, and dropping groundwater levels?
There are two levels at which one can answer this question: at the government/political level, as the several examples I have covered in the book clearly show, water provision has been rewarded by voters, but when political leaders have tried to manage water, their efforts have not always been met with political victory.
At the personal level, most of us believe that managing water is not our responsibility (after all, why would you manage something that is free and largely invisible), so we only grapple with it when there is a crisis. The ironic tragedy is that if only we each managed our water, the crisis will bite so much less.
You begin the book by noting how we once had a functional relationship with water – our regional cuisine, water storage systems, etc., all reflected the reality of how much water was available in that region/season. Do you we think some of those traditional methods and knowledge around managing water can be brought back at scale?
The example of what Rajendra Singh has achieved shows some level of scale is possible, but the farmer protest movement shows how powerful the push back will be against any change in crop patterns. So it is possible, but will not be easy.
What is the role of industry here?
Industries, or rather business leaders, exist on a spectrum on “water/climate awareness”. A few “get” it, are pro-active in managing their exposure and impact, and are therefore resilient. Some “tick mark” it – see it as a cost of doing business and move on. The rest don’t get it. This is a singularly foolish thing to do in a water-scare country which is rapidly heating up. Because industry, where it exists, tends to be a major user of water in its immediate locality. Which exposes it to a risk of protests and brand destruction in dry areas. Something one of the world’s iconic brands found out the hard way as I have covered in the book.
If we flip this about, managing water and climate risks are not very difficult to do once we factor them into the business model (and I’m speaking from personal experience here, managing two companies).
You have also talked about the changes businesses need to make to become more sustainable, and how this could affect multinational corporations (MNCs) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in very different ways. Is there a solution to this problem?
MNCs will face direct pressure from investors and customers as I have written in the book. SMEs, on the other hand, lack that pressure and are subject to high price pressure which makes them likely to give a short shrift to environmental compliances. One option is for the larger buyers to play a hand-holding and supporting role. The other is for government to have some form of regulation to ensure buyers pay a fair price (and pay promptly) to SMEs. Easier said than done, however.
Is there a startup in this space that you are really excited about.
I won’t name just one, because I have several that I find very cool in this space. One works with farmers to get them higher prices for sustainable practices, including conserving water. They have got a large number of Punjabi farmers to bite. That is one. The other one I have recently invested in treats sewage in Bengaluru to a very high standard and sells it to industries. Both of these herald what I hope will become a larger wave of innovating on water in the future.
You’ve invested in green startups in the past. Could you tell us some of the metrics you use to gauge the impact that a startup might have for water management?
M3 (a cubic meter) of water saved, or added value per m3 of water used. For example, one of the start-ups mentioned in the book, operates micro warehouses in Bihar and Jharkhand and has brought down the loss in stored rice from 25% to 5%. Since this start-up works with 31,000 tonnes of grain, the saved rice saves about 18 million m3 of water a year. Since Bihar has a fairly low rice yield, each tonne of rice saved saves that much more water. The saved water is enough water for 1.5 lakh households a year from the actions of a single company.
You’ve written that one of the key problems in managing the country’s water is the lack of good data. What do you think is missing and what would you propose to improve on this?
Much of the data in my book relies on WRIS, which has made life much easier for water researchers and the general public... The problem lies with the black hole that is water demand. WRIS provides rainfall and groundwater levels at the district level, but is more silent on how much and where and by whom the water is used. This is the gap that needs to be bridged, if we are going to make any headway on managing our demand, and thereby building our resilience. To use an analogy, how do we know if we are financially secure or how to improve our financial security if we only vaguely know how much the neighborhood earns, but don’t know how much we, personally, spend?
You’ve mentioned that climate change policy often talks in terms of carbon emissions but the climate speaks the language of water. What changes would you ideally like to see in this respect?
Almost every climate conversation underscores the need to cut emissions. This is important, no doubt. But in doing so, we overlook the reality that we appear to have crossed certain climate thresholds. Just witness the rising cadence of storms and floods in the past few decades.
Why do I say that the climate speaks through water? Consider the rising incidence of storms and the paradoxical (until you understand India’s water) rising incidence of drought. Or the rising incidence of forest fires (caused by less rain and less soil moisture). Or rising sea levels and melting glaciers. In India – arguably one of the most vulnerable countries to this warming – the water voice of the warming climate is shouting loudly. Which only means we need to speak far more than we do today of adaptation, where water takes centre stage.
Carbon concentrations are so high that the world has warmed quite a bit. And the warmer climate is making itself felt through water.
Nothing works like clarity in getting things done. And the world needs to get down its carbon emissions to keep it habitable for most of us in the not-too-distant future. Naturally, then, most climate conversations revolve around carbon, with political and business leaders jumping onto the Net Zero bandwagon. So why muddy the waters, by talking about, um, water?
Because while the world has been talking about reducing carbon emissions, those emissions themselves have been rising.
Figure 1: Rising Carbon Levels, Scripps CO2 programme
And now, carbon concentrations are so high that the world has warmed quite a bit. And the warmer climate is making itself felt through water. The climate speaks through water, you see. Rising incidence of storms – check. Rising incidence of drought (paradoxical, but understandable once you get water) – check. Rising forest fires (less rain and less soil moisture) – check. Rising sea levels – check. Melting glaciers – check. In India – arguably one of the most vulnerable countries to this warming – the water voice of the warming climate is hollering loudly. Take the damages from just floods and drought – almost all of us have encountered unusually intense rainfall (a finger print of climate change) this past year.
Figure 2: Damages in India from Floods and Storms (EMDAT database)
And despite the talk, it does not appear as though carbon concentrations will fall any time soon. And with that, warming will continue. In fact, even if emissions were to slow down, warming will continue. Climate Action Tracker, an independent website tracking emission pledges by various countries, places likely warming at well above 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard body for climate information, thinks it very likely the world will warm by about 1.6 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times by mid-century under the most optimistic scenario – i.e., everyone attains climate nirvana and cuts emissions rapidly.
In a more realistic scenario, warming could very likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century. If the water is so volatile at 1 degree Celsius warming, imagine how much more menacing it will be when the warming increases. Take a photo on your phone. Now, go to the editing section and start dialling up the contrast. What the warming climate does is increase contrast in the hydrological cycle: its’s akin to what happens to your photograph when you dial up the contrast. Wet regions will get wetter. Intense downpours like what we’ve seen this past year will become more common. And just as the white regions get whiter in a high contrast image, drier regions will become more parched. Think India’s northwest or parts of Tamil Nadu.
Now you see why water must be a larger part of the conversation.
And then there is us. India’s water is already a high contrast photo. We have one of the most geographically varied, seasonal waters in the world. And yet, we do silly things when we ignore water as we have. For example, we destroy what little water storage we have. Mumbai in the early 19th century had reputedly over 3000 tanks and wells – they are all gone. Chennai, Bengaluru, Madurai, so many other cities had tanks which have morphed into neighbourhoods susceptible to flooding as the climate heats up. In another silly move, we have moved to growing climate-inappropriate crops in one of the driest parts of the country. We have done this by dipping into our water savings – our groundwater. Of course, as expenses continually exceed income, our savings run out, which is what is happening around the country.
Our local climate warriors espouse the need for India to cut emissions. She should. But that story might unfold easier, if water was part of the narrative, instead of monomania on carbon. There are plenty of examples, but let me take three. First, coal. So many of India’s coal plants are shut down during summers or in the drought because they don’t have enough water to cool themselves. Their utilisation is so low, that they cease to be profitable. These plants in these locations (polluting, unreliable and unprofitable) make a great case of where India can begin weaning herself off coal, thereby lowering emissions.
Second, take solid waste. One helpmate of flooding is the waste that clogs the drains and the rubble and rubbish choking our waterways and water bodies. Now, managing this waste will reduce flooding and help India adapt to a warmer climate. But in doing so, India stands to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and cut emissions too! How? India’s solid waste is roughly two-third organic – think food waste. Food waste when dumped in landfills rots and releases methane – a powerful greenhouse gas. Managing the food waste will prevent the food waste (one start-up that I have invested in converts this waste into pressurised biogas to replace LPG. At home, we have a tiny biogas plant that powers one stove).
Third, consider forests. Forests play a critical role in smoothening India’s volatile water. You can see their role by their absence in the Kerala floods. Within forests, consider mangroves. Mangroves play a vital role in protecting our coastline. They ameliorate the effect of storm surges, and are thus powerful climate adaptation warriors. Studies have validated their protective role in the 2004 Tsunami and the 1999 Orissa cyclone. They do this while providing a home to an astonishing variety of species and sequestering many times more carbon than other types of tropical forest. Saving mangrove forests (many are disappearing) can help us adapt to a warmer climate by smoothening the ravages of water even while addressing carbon emissions.
Yes, clarity is important in tackling the climate problem. But when the climate has visibly changed, i.e., as new data emerges, the mandate has to take it into account. And the message from the volatile water is, that managing water must form an important part of the narrative.
Mridula Ramesh is a leading climate and water expert and author of Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It and The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do about It. You can follow her @mimiramesh. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication. Read all the Latest Opinions here
One way to work ourselves out of this mess is to adopt a change in perspective. And one way to get a new perspective is to belie the exceptionalism bias, visit our past. -By Mridula Ramesh
We have a tendency to think of ourselves as unique, that our present time is particularly special, and that our challenges are overwhelming and insurmountable and worse than humankind has encountered before. Yes, the climate is changing rapidly now, and CO2 levels are the highest in several million years. Yes, inequality is both obscene and stark. Water consumption is one visible way that manifests—while some frolic in private swimming pools, others rappel down a dried-up well to gather water that oozes out slowly from the earth. One way to work ourselves out of this mess is to adopt a change in perspective. And one way to get a new perspective is to belie the exceptionalism bias, visit our past.
You see, the climate has changed in the past—many times, in fact. And when it has, it has often brought down dynasties—the collapse of the mighty Ming Dynasty of China may have been significantly influenced by the colder climate and poorer harvests in the 16th and 17th centuries. Closer to home, the chaos of 14th century Delhi that saw Sultanates rise and fall like skittles may have a climate footprint to it. Emerging evidence from the study of speleothems (aka stalagmites and stalactites) suggests that the volatility of India’s variable water increased during these episodes of changing climate. Successful leaders understood that the key to withstanding volatility was sound water management. And few gave better water management advice than Chanakya.
Chanakya is popularly considered a minister of Chandragupta Maurya, and the author of the Arthashastra, a manual of statecraft. Pertinently for our story, the Arthashastra provides a fascinating look into the philosophy of water in ancient times. All water belonged to the king, Chanakya decrees, which allowed a single authority to govern water. This is identical to the state of affairs in Singapore or Israel but stands in sharp contrast to that in India today where multiple government departments try to govern India’s water, while the djinni of groundwater makes the notion of governance farcical. Clarity helps management. Anarchy d oes not.
Chanakya also acknowledged the highly seasonal nature of India’s water as is clear from his water pricing. Chanakya’s water price (in contrast to his water fines) were not payable in cash —they were paid through labour or by share of the crop. The former curbed widespread or accidental profligacy—after all, few would squander water that had been laboriously hauled from a well. In agriculture, making the price payable by a share of crops, synchronised price with availability. During periods of drought, when harvests were poor, paying with a share of crop translated into farmers paying less. Contrast this with a fixed, cash tax that the British imposed. This meant during a drought when his crop had failed, a farmer had to borrow to pay tax, a change that embedded money lenders into Indian agriculture.
Chanakya further addressed the importance of progressive pricing of water. So, while everyone paid a water price, the wealthier farmers, who could transport water through mechanical means or through bullock cart, paid a higher water price than those who lifted water from an irrigation source manually. By getting larger users of water to pay more, Chanakya kept addressing inequality front-and-centre in his water philosophy. Contrast that with today, where wealthier farmers enjoy free water (thanks to free electricity to run their borewells), with some even turning into a source of revenue by selling the water they don’t need to neighbouring farmers who cannot afford a borewell. The situation mirrors the inequality in cities—gated communities enjoy manicured lawns watered by free groundwater while those in slums get by on less than a few bucketful’s of water per person per day procured through jostling by the women of the household. The Jal Jeevan mission is a welcome initiative to redress this imbalance.
Lastly, the primary source of irrigation in Chanakya’s time was the tank (which took the volatility and seasonality of India’s water in its stride) and whose administration was decentralised and the community took care of maintenance—in keeping with the varied nature of India’s water. Chanakya valued this maintenance, he gave tax breaks for it!
Today, thanks to climate inertia, warming and its effects are baked in. A highly vulnerable country like India must ramp up its climate resilience, where resilience begins with water management. From Chanakya’s perspective, that translates to a variable, seasonal, progressive price for India’s water, where communities are involved in its management.
Mridula Ramesh is a writer and Founder, Sundaram Climate Institute. You can find her on twitter: @mimiramesh
Author Mridula Ramesh talks about how, historically, India was aware of how special water was and had devised ways to manage it in a decentralised manner, which is also needed today to solve India's water crisis. ByGovindraj Ethiraj|19 Jan, 2022
Mumbai: "Until water disappeared from our house, it remained invisible to us," said Mridula Ramesh, author of the book, Watershed: How We Destroyed India's Water And How We Can Save It. The book, which also details her own experience when water ran out in her Madurai home in 2013, talks about how at one time in history Indians understood the importance of water and had the awareness to manage it well.
Today, 7% of the Indian population, or 91 million people, are without basic water supply, while nearly 600 million face "high to extreme water stress". India is dependent on the monsoons for rainfall, most of which comes in just 100 hours in a single year, said Ramesh.
Further, with climate change, the supply of water is changing. For instance, a city like Chennai was bereft of water and rainwater for decades, and then it suddenly had a flood. We went from nothing to plenty, and both situations are a problem. On the other hand, the demand for water is rising, especially as India becomes more urbanised.
Ramesh, the founder of Sundaram Climate Institute, which works on waste and water solutions, is also an investor in cleantech start-ups and the executive director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also the author of the book, The Climate Solution: India's Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It. She lives in a net zero-waste house in Madurai. Ramesh spoke to IndiaSpend on how we can manage water better at home, how there is inequality in access to water, and why water is a woman.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
When you ran out of water in your own home, which had never happened before, you used that event to teach yourself about the problem of water scarcity and how to fight back. Let's begin there and then talk about the larger challenge in India and what to do about it. Until water disappeared from our house, it remained invisible to us. This happens to most of us. That is also the premise behind the book. At one time, Indians understood what made water special. One of the statistics you mentioned blew my mind when I started working in this field–that India gets its water in just 100 hours. It's one of the most seasonal waters in the world. The World Resources Institute has compared the seasonality of water among 166 countries. India's water is more seasonal than 163 of them. We understood this once; we had the distributed storage, the awareness, the demand management to cope with it. And then somewhere along the line--the book traces exactly where, how and why water became invisible--we got used to just getting it on the tap. You stop caring and don't see yourself as a part of the problem or the solution. And you just use water, until one day, it runs out, as it did for me.
Your life turns topsy turvy, you run pillar to post to find out where to buy water, is it good quality etc. In my case, that opened the door to a different world because water is best managed in a decentralised fashion. If you can manage demand, it's a very empowering thing to do. Once you try to acknowledge water, try to understand it and say that it's my responsibility, my problem, solving it is not as difficult a problem as it appears to be. It's a grim topic but it's not a hopeless one.
That's a really interesting way to look at it–that it's my problem and not just a problem for the municipal corporation. Walk us through what happened post your water running out. The book tells us how you rolled up your sleeves and set out to find the source of the water and measure it, which was really enlightening. So tell us about that.
I have 15 meters [for water] in our house. We are fully aware of where we use our water. How that helps is that we are able to find a surgical approach to the problem. So many of us, in municipalities and homes, lose so much water to leaks. If you have two meters on either point, you can figure out where you are losing water. And solving it is really inexpensive.
The second thing is that you don't need the same quality of water for all uses. What you flush is different from what you use in the garden. We have three to four qualities of water in our house. It sounds more complex than it is but your neighbourhood plumber will be able to do it. The good thing is that apartment complexes, when they are reaching this day 0 kind of scenario [when you run out of water], they are finding out that it actually makes economic sense for them to do dual plumbing, and use different sources of water for different purposes.
The third thing is…Tamil Nadu was a forerunner in rain water harvesting [asking all public and privately owned buildings to harvest rainwater] but laws remain on paper unless they are evenly implemented. What we found is that 50% of the 2,000 households we spoke to, either didn't have rainwater harvesting or it didn't work the way it should. Many don't even know why they need it. It was like ticking a box to meet the regulatory demand. Rain days are going down in India because of climate change and rainfall is becoming very intense on the days it rains. This is the time when rainwater harvesting is needed more than ever. Again, it's not very difficult or expensive to fix.
Tell us how and why we are facing a water problem today in India? And what is the manifestation of that? As you said, it's become so invisible that some of us don't realise it. And you also mention the income aspect, that in some areas it has become so expensive to buy water.
How visible water is to you depends on where you are as India's water is so geographically varied. It also depends on where you sit on the economic ladder. For the wealthy, water is peripheral–during a flood, they can escape, their homes are dry and their generators run. If you go down, that is, to the middle class, it's a concern of uncertainty, whether the water will enter our homes or will they get water in the drought. And you might think that floods and droughts are different but you have to understand they are the same phenomenon–the intensely volatile and variable water that is India's water. When you go down to the economically vulnerable, their stories are just tragic. That story is repeated in every city in India. You have to beg, struggle, cajole, bribe to get two or three buckets of water.
I would love to be able to give you a certain estimate [on water availability and use], but there is no reliable data. The level of metering is so poor and that's part of the problem. If we can't have good data to agree there is a problem, how are we going to summon the political will to take the kind of decisions to actually solve the problem. There is a huge variation. Some states and municipalities get it, and are going ahead with solutions. Others prefer to live in a black hole. An often quoted statistic, and one I have used in my book, is that India will be unable to meet half its water demand in 2030. In 2021, there are parts of India that are living in day 0. In the summer, they are not able to meet water demand. Factories are shutting down because there isn't enough water.
How did we get here? There were 4,000 tanks in Mumbai and similarly in many other cities in the country which were used to store water. They would not only be useful when there was flooding but they were repositories of water when you would need them. You have also delved into this history in the book, please tell us more about that.
If you look at the history, say the Indus Valley Civilisation. There is a fascinating set of studies, also quoted in my book, in which archeo-botanists looked at hundreds of seed samples from across the Indus Valley settlements over time to know what and where the farmers grew their crops. They found that in places which had relatively more water, river water and melted snow, they grew water profligate crops, and even traces of rice have been found there. But in places, like Gujarat, where there was less water and they relied on seasonal rain, and there is less than 500 mm of rain even today, the farmers made-do with millets. And over time their crops were changed to keep pace with water availability. Chanakya talks so eloquently about water–not only about a water price but variable and progressive water pricing, where the rich farmers pay more, especially when they use technology to access water.
There are two elements, that water shapes cities, and water shapes crops. The British came and said, no, human engineering can overcome water variability. I have spoken about the Punjab Canal Colonies [in my book] and how they taught farmers over time that you can grow whatever crops you want, and the canals will bring the water in and the railroads will truck the water out and the local water availability doesn't matter. Then you come to Indian cities, such as Pataliputra, that were shaped by water. They were usually close to a perennial water source and they respected water.
British cities, like Kolkata, located in a cyclone-prone zone, and Chennai, no perennial river, and then the engineering would get water to the doorstep. But then you fast forward, the British leave, droughts make Indian leaders very keen to become food independent and then comes the lure of the green revolution. The problem there is that you are focusing on crops like wheat and rice in places that didn't grow them. And then you don't put a price on water. India always had a price for water, payable in kind. Once you pay in kind, you are automatically adjusting for seasonality. So when there is a drought you pay less. Paying cash was a change that again came with the British, and then competitive populism crept through in the 60s, and the price of water became flat [without adjusting for seasonality], and then that price was taken away. So water became invisible. There was this huge underground largesse that seemed infinite.
You have spoken about the need to focus on the farm sector when we talk about water consumption. We have seen in the last couple years how growing sugarcane is disproportionate to the water it consumes and takes from other uses, including drinking water. Tell us how bad it is and how we should focus our attention there.
I won't fully agree that it's only the farm sector which we should focus on. I am flipping it around and saying we are responsible for our own water. So sure, if you are in the farm sector, or farm-adjacent, we can focus on that, But cities and businesses are equally vulnerable. We are not going to solve India's water crisis by focusing only on farms, we need to focus on cities and industries too. Having said that, I think the past year and all the things that have happened, it's taught us that policy may not help much.
Let's take Punjab, for example. I think everyone acknowledges that we need a change of cropping patterns. If we grow sugarcane, we need to grow it more efficiently. If we grow rice, in what is almost an arid land, we should grow it more efficiently. But what is more important is that we can't expect the change to happen at the farmer's end. If you can start it at the demand end…I give the example of the egg campaign, [which asked Indians to incorporate eggs in their diet as a good source of nutrition]. You give it [crops] an extensive marketing push, and then hand-holding is what has worked to make people more efficient in growing whichever crop it is. So demand and some degree of hand-holding, again, decentralised.
In 150 years, we have gone from 250 million people eating millets to 1.3 billion eating rice and wheat and that itself is a big determiner of how water is consumed.
Right, and we are growing wheat and rice in the driest parts of the country. We are not growing it in places which get metres of rain in a matter of months, we are growing it in places which get 500-700 mm of rain. Rice needs double that, let alone wheat. Nothing else to me said dramatically, that we have forgotten our water in every way possible. This really started with the procurement policies and was shaped by a drought. Someone said this to me that we started this when we were water secure and food insecure. Now we are trying to use the same horse to get us forward when we are food secure and water insecure. Something has to change but the change has to come from the demand end.
I will give you one ray of hope. There is a startup where I will invest soon. It works with more than 3,000 farmers in Punjab through a local NGO. They put meters to measure water and say that if you are able to bring down the water you use, I can give you a sustainable tag, which gives a premium for your rice, and you can export it at a premium. Small ray of hope. Like how organic milk fetches a premium. But all the organic, sustainable, natural, has to be humanised because done wrong it can be a disaster.
One thing you have spoken about and I would like you to elaborate on is the impact of water or its scarcity on gender. Is that another invisible challenge?
I think it is. Water is female, and that is what I call it in the book, because the women are responsible for gathering water. It's very easy when you live in an apartment and you turn on the tap and water flows in. In our study, most people get water two-three times a week for a few hours a day. In the summers and during El Nino years, which are drought years, they get water once in four days, in the middle of the night for a couple of hours. So they need to always be on alert. So imagine you sleep at midnight, at 2am you have to get up and rush, push, get however much water you can get. The kind of rationing we saw when water was short was sickening. Any kind of health impact of that again fell on the woman because she was taking care of the people in her house.
We are also waking up to the effects of less sleep. So if women are taking a hit to their sleep, they become less desirable employees. India's urban work force participation, Tamil Nadu's urban workforce participation, is less than Saudi Arabia's. This is just stark. Water is not the only or primary reason for this, but it certainly is something to think about. In a story I read about the Vaitarna dam that supplies Bombay with its water, there is a village, one km from the dam, where the water scarcity is so intense that women rappel down a well, wait for water to ooze out and then gather it.
You've spoken about the problem and you've spoken about how we can save it. You've spoken about policy and individual innovation. Industry has to resolve its own problems, as do farms and individual people. How optimistic are you of this happening so that we don't see day 0 coming in more and more cities? There was an interesting example you quoted, that Cape Town in South Africa ran out of water in 2018 and they called it day 0, but it only ran out of municipal water while it always had groundwater. In 2019, in Chennai, it ran out of water, it became day 0, but it ran out of both municipal and groundwater.
Our day 0 is much worse. The day 0 in South Africa has political overturns too. But our day 0 is frightening because we are bone dry. But to answer your question, there is hope in fear. I look at how politically resonan it is, and the short answer is not as much as one would like. Therefore, action has to be decentralised. When the pain is highest, people will hopefully do something. When Chennai had its day 0 moment, Madurai also had its day 0 moment. The good thing is people are waking up to the glory of tanks and lakes. Encroachment is taken more seriously by courts and people are not getting a free pass. The rejuvenation of tanks is moving up the priority list.
When we studied 100 tanks as part of our study, we found that if you live next to a functional lake or a tank, then the groundwater is about 200 feet higher than it would otherwise be. If you rejuvenate a dysfunctional lake or a tank, water levels go up, quite substantially. It varies in how effective it was of course. We studied 19 tanks in Madurai. It's helped with both floods and droughts. In other areas, such as changing our crop patterns, we've had less success. Hopefully that should be demand related. Unfortunately some areas will run out of groundwater. One can only hope and pray.
You've spent a chapter talking about a fairly dystopian future. 2030, only eight years away now, is that your cut off for when all goes to sea?
When I tried to look at what might transpire–it's already happening and it's only going to accelerate. I talk about this geoengineering where people try to cool the planet, and you can see that happening. But unfortunately whenever people try that–they are essentially mimicking a volcano erupting. Given the variability of India's water, if you have drought, a few years down the line you will have intense rainfall. And then you will have floods. The kind of floods you will see will make the recent Bombay floods or Chennai floods or any other floods look mild in comparison.
We have forgotten–This has happened before in the past, the climate has changed. There are reports of when famine stalked Delhi, when they were even reports of cannibalism because it was so bone dry. Floods, when it rained so much in Patliputra that one of the crown jewels of the ancient world just got overwhelmed by floods. You've seen it time and again in Indian history, but we've forgotten, which is not a good thing to do. Especially because the climate is warming and we appear to have crossed some climate thresholds.
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Delhi battles heavy pollution every winter
"Every winter, Indian capital Delhi's toxic air is fuelled by farmers burning crop stubble. But the fires don't stop. Why? The answer lies in water, writes climate expert Mridula Ramesh.
India loses an estimated $95bn (£70bn) to air pollution every year.
From mid-March to mid-October, when Delhi's air quality varies from good to moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups, chatter on air pollution and its causes is muted.
But then comes winter. Pollution in any city mixes vertically in the atmosphere, and the height at which this happens shrinks by more than half in the winter, raising the concentration of pollution. Two new sources also enter the mix. By the end of October, when the rains have ceased, the winds begin to blow in from the northwest, carrying fumes from burning fields. Then there is the Diwali, the popular festival lights, where millions burst fire crackers to celebrate.
Both of these play a large role in the spike in pollution. In the first week of November 2021, when Delhi's air quality went beyond hazardous, stubble burning accounted for 42% of the city's PM2.5 levels - these are tiny particles that can enter the lungs.
Governments have banned the practice, imposed fines and even suggested alternate uses for the straw and other crop residue. But farmers continue to burn stubble. Why?
Why crop burning continues to smother north India
How a food crisis led to Delhi’s foul smog
Think of the fields that are on fire. They get only between 500-700mm (19-27 in) of rainfall a year. Yet, many of these fields grow a dual crop of paddy and wheat. Paddy alone needs about 1,240mm (48.8 in) of rainfall each year, and so, farmers use groundwater to bridge the gap.
The northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which grow large amounts of paddy, together take out roughly 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater a year, which is not much less than India's overall annual municipal water requirement: 56bcm. As a result, groundwater levels in these states are dropping rapidly. Punjab is expected to run out of groundwater in 20-25 years from 2019, according to an official estimate.
The burning fields is a symptom of the deteriorating relationship between India and its water.
Long ago, farmers grew crops based on locally available water. Tanks, inundation canals and forests helped smoothen the inherent variability of India's tempestuous water.
But in the late 19th Century, the land began to transform as the British wanted to secure India's north-western frontier against possible Russian incursion. They built canals connecting the rivers of Punjab, bringing water to a dry land. They cut down forests, feeding the wood to railways that could cart produce from the freshly watered fields. And they imposed a fixed tax payable in cash that made farmers eager to grow crops that could be sold easily. These changes made farmers believe that water could be shaped, irrespective of local sources - a crucial change in thinking that is biting us today.
After independence from the British in 1947, repeated droughts made the Indian government succumb to the lure of the "green revolution".
Until then, rice, a water-hungry crop, was a marginal crop in Punjab. It was grown on less than 7% of the fields. But beginning in the early 1960s, paddy cultivation was encouraged by showing farmers how to cheaply and conveniently tap into a new, seemingly-endless source of water that lay underground.
Why I switched to eating grandma's food
Pollution in Delhi homes worse than outdoors - study
The flat power tariffs to run borewells were cheapened and finally not paid - removing any incentive to conserve water. Water did not need to be managed, farmers were taught, only extracted. In the heady first years of the revolution, fields began to churn out paddy and wheat, and India became food-secure. But after a couple of decades, the water began to sputter.
To conserve groundwater, a 2009 law forbade farmers from sowing and transplanting paddy before a pre-determined date based on the onset of the monsoon. The aim was to make the borewells run less in the peak summer months.
But the delay in paddy planting shrunk the gap between the paddy harvest and sowing of wheat. And the quickest way to clear the fields was to burn them, giving rise to the smoky plumes that add to northern India's air pollution.
So, the toxic smog is but a visible symbol of India's trainwreck of a relationship with its water.
o tackle this problem, Indians need to respect their water again - a tall ask after decades of neglect.
Take people's choices in food and crops. A century ago, most Indians ate the hardy millet, which could withstand the vicissitudes of India's water. Today, there are far more Indians, and they eat rice and wheat rotis (flatbreads), making millets an unappealing crop for farmers to grow.
And pricing water, directly or through electricity that powers the borewells, is seen as political suicide. Meanwhile, as air quality improves from hazardous to (very) unhealthy, people, courts and political leaders have moved on - at least until next November.
But the time bomb - of depleting groundwater - ticks on. Once that runs out, the November air might be cleaner.
But what will India do about food?
Mridula Ramesh is a leading climate and water expert and author of Watershed: How We Destroyed India's Water and How We Can Save It and The Climate Solution: India's Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do about It.
Sabita Singh Kaushal Today, water is a word of disquiet, laced with apprehension, foreboding and uncertainty. Heavy rains translate into less water, swift floods follow droughts, plummeting groundwater equals water-rich crops; all these and more ceaseless assaults of water-related news recur in our lives, again and again. The waters are shifting, and Mridula Ramesh’s new book, ‘Watershed: How we destroyed India’s water and how can we save it’, delves deep into this seemingly tectonic shift to the waterscape around us.
Ramesh is the author of the new book, Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It. She is founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, which focuses on waste and water solutions.
At some level, we all seem to sense this not-so-subtle change, but are somehow unable to put our finger on the right spot. This book takes us through a kaleidoscope of the nation’s fluctuating water resources, clamouring demands, the yearnings and the complexity that shape and fulfil our collective and individual water needs. Stitching together water stories from ancient India to modern urban cities, it traverses a journey that is both insightful and thought-provoking.
From the prosperous Pataliputra protected and enriched by its rivers, to medieval Delhi reshaped and framed by water, till present-day Chennai’s lost water connect, historical anecdotes make it an interesting read. It tells of how Israel, a global leader in water management, resonates India’s famed strategist Chanakya’s concept of how ‘all water belongs to the state/king’.
Arthashastra decrees that during that period, all water was highly valued (fine for urinating in a water reservoir was twice that of doing the same at a holy site) and fairly priced, where everyone paid, but the rich paid more. Wealthier farmers who could afford to lift water mechanically into channels were taxed 1/3rd of the produce, while those who manually transported water paid only 1/5th of the produce as tax.
It details how Punjab’s canal system, ‘colonial state’s greatest achievement’, was not simply an agricultural incentive, but represented ‘a hard-nosed, highly profitable investment’ for the British Raj that helped their ‘control, profit and colonise’ intent effectively. In the same state, it explains how free power has translated into groundwater abuse, with over 14 lakh borewells dug (till 2015). Rainfall is not enough for the Punjab farmer, s/he digs deep into the earth and mines groundwater to fulfill the need for a twin crop pattern of paddy and wheat. And, the farming community now finds it nearly impossible to break out of this powerful addiction. Why is that so, even though the farmer realises that the depleted groundwater and soil in the farm serve up as collateral damage?
Interspersed with water-bound stories, the book looks into many such dichotomies. Of how features that played a formidable role in the waterscape for centuries have lost out; and how it is these dilapidated tanks, fettered rivers and hacked forests that need to be reimagined and refurbished for a better tomorrow. The book ends with possible answers, ideas and action plans that an individual, community and organisation can arm themselves with, to be able to secure a future that is water-efficient.
However, a fine-tuned emphasis on rivers and their present state of flux would have been a helpful addition. A candid discussion on the river-linking projects, whether they are an ambitious pipe dream or another disaster in the making, would have added to the depth and understanding of India’s current water issues. Nevertheless, if water interests you or simply baffles you; if you have questions on water that trouble you, then this is just the book to pick up and become a little bit more water-wise.
Mridula Ramesh, a leading clean-tech angel investor with a portfolio of over 15 startups and who is involved in multiple initiatives to build climate entrepreneurship, ran out of water at her Madurai home in 2013.
"For India, arguably one of the most vulnerable countries to the changing climate, water needs its share of the conversation," and her new book, "Watershed" (Hachette India), "is an effort to correct that imbalance" because "we have crossed certain climate thresholds, and need to address water to lessen the pain that Indians are feeling in this changed climate", Mridula said.
"More worrisome, the changing climate and water cycle is highlighting inequalities such as those between rich and poor within a given city and between the developed and developing world. Storms, flooding and drought affect the poor more than the rich," she added.
Moreover, looking at this through a climate justice angle, "we find that adaptation (a large part of which is managing water) is getting a far less conversation-share and lower share of financing than mitigation, even though developing countries have contributed far less to the cumulative GHG emissions that have caused this global warming. This lower priority only serves to increase existing inequalities," Mridula explained.
She also said, "As the climate heats up, it is likely that swathes of land will be submerged, water-related extremes will re-shape industry and famine will revisit the country."
Sea-level rise and stronger storms and stronger storm surges will result in parts of the country being underwater for at least some time each year in the future. Many industries came up in the belief that water is endless and cheap climate change is challenging both of those beliefs. For example, sectors like thermal power plants in dry regions may find the going far less profitable, and may need to relocate or shutdown.
"On famine, we have gone from a nation of 220 million eating largely millets to a nation of 1.3 billion eating rice and wheat. The price for this transformation has been paid largely from the groundwater reserved of the dry northwest. In 2019, a state committee had opined that Punjab may run out of groundwater in 20-25 years. What will happen if an El Nino hits after that? That's what the plausible fictional scenario in Chapter 24 tries to portray what can happen if all these come to pass in the near future," Mridula cautioned.
Considerable research has gone into the book, with the studies conducted by the Madurai-based Sundaram Climate Institute forming one of its core pillars.
"We have spoken to over 2,000 households on their waste and water realities apart from studying the communities and impact of 100 tanks. Then there was the historical research, many of which involved interviews, site visits and perusal of primary sources such as letters or writings of colonial officials. Then there was the peer-reviewed literature from archaeologists, geologists, chemists, hydrologists, climatologists, medical doctors, and historians," Mridula elaborate<
"In terms of climate and water vulnerabilities, India ranks very high because of its population, its relative financial position, the large share of rainfed farms in agriculture and its long coastline. Also important to note is that the Indian Ocean has warmed faster than the other oceans in the world, leading to more powerful storms," Mridula said.
Speaking about her experience with her net-zero-waste home and how this can be replicated at the micro and macro levels, she said: "Before we did anything we collected data, what we wasted, who, why, how. Over time, patterns emerged and we began seeing what the biggest areas of waste were -- so we brought the amount of 'generated waste' down."
"Second, we began to see how much of the 'waste' we could reuse -- that is re-imagination, how to see 'waste' as a 'resource' -- that was the killer step. We make compost and biogas, which keeps the garden healthy and the costs down. We also bring in waste from outside -- flower waste and cow dung -- to help with the compost and biogas.
"We have had our successes and failures, but what has kept us going is the focus on data, and emphasis on making any action as easy to follow as possible," Mriduala concluded.
Mridula Ramesh on what it would take to solve India’s water crisis
How bad is India’s water crisis? What has led us to this place? And what can be done to solve it? In this episode, Sandip is joined by Mridula Ramesh to talk about India’s groundwater crisis. From the Indus Valley civilisation, to British policies that still affect us, Ramesh tells us about all that has caused India’s grave water crisis.
Ramesh is the author of the new book, Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It. She is founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, which focuses on waste and water solutions.
Sandip Roy: Mridula Ramesh, welcome to the show.
Mridula Ramesh: Thank you, Sandeep. Thank you so much for the interest. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sandip Roy: I usually don’t start with bad news, but we talk so much about the climate crisis, air pollution crisis. But I feel we talk far less about water crisis. And I wanted to ask you, So how bad is the water crisis in India? Are we close to any tipping point?
Mridula Ramesh: No, that’s a really interesting question. Sandeep, and I’ll respond by saying all these crises have their origin in the same thing. I mean, it’s not a separate air crisis or a climate crisis or a water crisis. They’re all interlinked. And, you know, in the framing of the climate crisis, we often the people who talk about it often talk about it in terms of carbon. But the climate itself speaks through water. So, you know, climate change is actually taking something so mundane and something we take for granted like water and turning it into something both precious and menacing at the same time. Which is why it’s sort of manifesting as this crisis and it’s manifesting more often nowadays. But to answer your specific question, which is how close to a tipping point are we? We are very close, right? And because India’s water is so varied, the tipping point will vary by city . Right. So you’re already seeing a form of a terrible form of day zero snaking its way across the country. You know, it may not be there in the lucky households who have municipal water piped them, but you’re certainly seeing it in the peripheries of many Indian cities, which neither have access to municipal water, nor are they from. They’ve exhausted their groundwater. You’re seeing it in the farms. You know, the spiking of farmer suicides when El Nino comes to visit . So you’re seeing it in every part of the country. You know, the tipping point is varied. So it’s not like the entire country is tipping over, but certain parts of the country certainly are.
Sandip Roy: Well, in in that case, though, why is it not more often an election issue, because you are you say in the book that while certainly promising free water can be an election issue, maintaining water for the long term is not. It does not get anyone elected.
Mridula Ramesh: So that was surprising for us to. So, you know, in the Climate Institute that I ran, we said, OK, sort of pontificating about it in an ivory tower that’s actually go and ask real people whether it would they would actually vote on water. And we asked over nine hundred people this question. And you know, and we asked this question during the two thousand nineteen water crisis when Chennai had,you know, the lakes were dry and in Madurai to the vast people who are getting water once in 4 dys, once a week. And the overwhelming answer was no. Right. The water management was not something they would vote on, and you see that time and time again. And one possible reason for that is the lives of the majority of Indians is so uncertain that anything beyond one to two weeks doesn’t really compute doesn’t make sense. There are so many uncertainty. You know, wherever there is, they do. They have a job. They get a regular income. You know, will how healthy will they be? Will they even live to see two or three years when water management, if everything goes right, slowly starts working its magic? So that may be an explanation.
Sandip Roy: So what would you say are currently what you’re calling the hydrological fault lines, and I’m using the plural because it’s not one fault line, not one.
Mridula Ramesh: So it begins by, you know, if you were to go, if you were, just imagine yourself as an explorer in the old world and you come to this new city and you’re observing this creature for the first time and you start describing it. So when you look at India’s water, as that creature, it’s got certain facets, right? So it’s geographically varied. It’s so variable right. So there are places that get meters of rainfall and in a few months and then you’ve got places that, you know, go for days or months without rain at all. So you’ve got that geographic variability. And the other thing is, India’s water is so seasonal right there. I think in the FAO aqua stat database, I looked at one hundred and sixty six countries where our water is more seasonal than one hundred and sixty two of them, if I’m not mistaken. And then it’s all temporal when I learned that India’s water, most of its rainfall falls in one hundred hours. You’re really thinking Sledgehammer versus this gentle massage. And then, you know, was El Nino, an Indian Ocean Dipole? All of these enter and exit the stage. It varies. So much so the key. The key challenge is to actually manage that variability and the moment you just assume it’s a straight line, plain vanilla kind of a thing, you’re creating faultline. So what are they? It is it growing and eating what is not in keeping with your local water availability? So India’s biggest breadbaskets are dry they are places that get between 500 to 700 millimeters of rain.
Mridula Ramesh: And we’re asking them to grow a crop which needs over a thousand two hundred and forty millimeters of rain. So, you know, it’s just this oddity which creates a faultline and then climate change will come and press on the fault line, you know, making the fault line a fracture because it’ll make one of the projections is that the rainfall there will actually go down over time, and as heat increases, the yields will start falling. So, you know, that is one dault line. The other one is not managing our demand, right, decimating storage. I live in a place called Chokwekullamr and kollum means pond. This house has been here for more than 80 years. There has been no pond, right? The nearest lake is now an All India radio station. A further away lake calls the corporation office another lake farther away. All part of a court. So you know you’ve you’ve started reimagining places to store your water, which is so of required for such variable water.And you said it’s more valuable as dry land. And when you do that, you’re creating another fault line , which then when climate change comes and makes water intense and you no longer have a place for it to flow into and then you get floods.
Sandip Roy: So it’s basically supply storage and demand. These three things are what we are going to have to juggle around in order to be able to have sustainable and consistent water.
Mridula Ramesh: It is recognizing India’s water. We’ve taken India’s water for granted. You know, if I ask anyone, how much water have you consume today? The answer? You know, exactly. Would you would you know what the answer is? And I would wager No, you know, we’ve become we’ve just taken it for granted. And. This is a recent oddity, right, throughout India’s history, and, you know, going back through five thousand years of history, which I’ve looked at in the book, India’s water was always very valued it . There was a price placed on it, but it wasn’t a monetary or a cash prize. It was. It was either through shramdaan through labor or a share of crops, and pricing it that way actually respected the seasonality and you know, the how the water varied across the years. But we’ve we’ve lost that if we’ve said this is something for the government to provide. It is not my responsibility.
Sandip Roy: And can you can you give the quote from because you’re talking about how we respected water in the past? There’s a bit from the Arthsahstra when you talk about Chanakya and the fines. Could you mention that?
Mridula Ramesh: No, no, I think, yeah. So when CHanakya was a very pragmatic man. Right? And there’s something which I didn’t put in the book, which was very interesting. So he said, Look, why is this bad, right? But why is this profitable? So we should tax all vices? And then he goes into detailing how water is to supply, be supplied to all the then dens of vices like gambling halls and brothels. But that’s a separate point. But when you look at how Chanakya conceptualized water, it was fascinating. And he said all water belonged to the king because managing water led to prosperity, and that held the power to the king strength. And that’s a, you know, a saying that comes again and again in the ancient age like Avaya, the Tamil poet said. Pretty much the same thing. And he said, OK, how do you manage what like ownership is centralized, but then? Water price was progressive, so, you know, depending on how a farmer drew water from an irrigation source, so if he drew it manually, which meant that Farmer was poor, right, he paid the lowest amount of tax, so he only would pay a fifth of his crop. But if he drew it through mechanical means, you would pay a higher share. So it was a it was a seasonal price, which is also a progressive price, which is rich. Farmers paid more, which is completely ultaa to what is happening today. Right. Wealthier farmers have the borewells, which allows them, especially if you combine that with free electricity. They are getting water. It essentially for free, whereas poor farmers who are typically rainfed have complete uncertainty and unpredictability, or they have to buy water from the wealthier farmers. So we’ve moved a long way from what Chanakya emphasized. You also had these
Sandip Roy:He also had thees Fines for facilities
Mridula Ramesh:That was hilarious. Yeah. So he had the Swach Bharat fines for those days. And he went into an inordinate amount of detail. So he would say , and you know.5 And he would the fine for peeing into a reservoir. a water reservoire was far more than fine, fine for peeoing into a religious place that showed how the importance for water 8 and, you know, the fine for peeing and defecating were again different. 3 You know,3 the fine for defecating was twice the fine of peeing.6 So he, you know, he really thought through this and that really conveyed the respect for water that the reservoir was more important than religious place.11:35
Sandip Roy: 11:37 What you say while going through this history? 11:36 11:38 Is that this relationship that India historically had with its water and how to manage its seasonality changed with the British. 9 It was an attitude change towards water. 3 And you say our erstwhile colonial masters foundationally destabilized India’s water regime in many ways. Could you elaborate on the ways they did it?3
Mridula Ramesh: 3 Yeah, so5 I think pretty much everything starts with philosophy, what you value, what you prize 2 and then it moves on from there. 4 And at the 6 when you look at what the British did, there are there is the overt messaging and then there is the subtext, and both are important5 In the overt messaging There was a feeling that technology can overcome the natural variability of water,5 and this is hard for me to say because I’m a tech aficionado and I’m still saying it because I think it is something that all tech aficionados should keep in mind. 4 No, you know, it’s like6 it’s a it’s a monkey with a garland or 9 a monkey putting its finger into the plug.2 You have to be aware of what you’re messing around with and incomplete knowledge and messing around with it can lead to problems.8 So if you take the Punjab,0 you know.2 It was a dry land, and what the British did was build the canals that brought water to dry land and made it rich farmland. 2 Right?4 So the text was We are the colonial masters and we will provide.9 And you know, there is a quote that says this was seen as the largest, greatest achievement. It was a wonderful engineering feat that turned dry deserts into magnificent farmland. 1 But what is the subtext and the subtext is critical.5 It provided a fantastic return on British capital in one figure that I cite is the Chenab of canal provided twenty three and a half percent return on capital. That was valuable and every step of that equilibrium transfer changed it, 3 right? So they cleared the forest. The forest is now created fresh land that could be farmed. That fact that forests stabilized India’s water forest really act like gelatin stabilizing India’s water didn’t matter.7 The the the British saw the forest as trees.
Mridula Ramesh: They missed the forest, but they got the trees.3 The second fact was, you know, de-emphasize the community, control on the water and get centralized control.3 Well, you know,5 there was always a subtle threat. You misbehave and you can turn the tap off9 . Right.0 the third thing was the railways again, very important, the forest oprovided the sleepers in the to help build the railways and the railways were helped to carry away the produce that these newly desert turned field was able to provide. And lastly, and very importantly, was the kind of taxation5 earlier. It was always a cash paid in kind. Let’s not forget, like an El Nino or Enzo, or is a periodic phenomenon right? It repeats every two to seven years.7 And when that happens, the Indian monsoon changes fundamentally.1 So once you put a fixed. 3 So when there was a variable price, 5 you know the crop would,8 the tax would adjust to the crop. So there was no need for the farmer to grow something different or to access credit. 4 But what the British did is by placing a fixed cash tax during a drought year, you would now have to borrow to pay right. And. It also incentivized farmers to go in for cash crops. 2 So the whole equilibrium changed, farmers began to grow what the external market wanted, what they could get cash to pay for the taxes and not what the local water regime would support, what the local community would want.9 And so all at once, you’re trampling all over India’s worth of assets and that seed that you can get away with growing and completely disregarding water of assets was planted there and something I don’t think we’ve really gotten over that even today.6
Sandip Roy: That’s my question. The British are gone. We dismantled so many of the regressive laws that they left and all of that. What prevented us from going back to a more sustainable water model?1
Mridula Ramesh: So I mean, like, 4 let’s take the years post independence, right? So every time an el nino in came to visit India, you know you were really held, as I put it in after the nineteen sixty five drought ship to moth them out. I do need to be food independent and there came the Green Revolution, all neat and tidy again, saying the same thing that you know, technology will prevail and you unleash the Borewell on India,2 right?3 And you put no, you know, you put a flat tariff, then you reduce the flat tariff and then you make it free altogether.1 So there are no controls and the groundwater looks endless. 5 And that’s something I can sympathize with because I mean, let me be very honest,9 I did not. 1 My eyes were completely close to this until my invisible groundwater ran out at home.7 Right, so.8 It’s like.9 We’ve we we tried to become food independent at a time when the ground water ocean seemed endless. 9 And we’ve now come to the end of the road because that ground water ocean is shrinking and become a pond.6 And we are now food secure and we need to move away. But I think current events have shown how difficult it is to move away. 5 And today, every Indian wants rice and wheat and looks at millets and any other, you know, water resilient crop as being uncool.6 So even if you ask the farmer to grow. Water silient millets is there a demand for it? 5 You know, and if there is no demand for it, will there, you know, it’s it’s just we’restuck in a bad equilibrium and it’s going to be very, very hard to move away from that.4
Sandip Roy: So has there been an effort to do that? 6 I mean, the what is it? The Food Corporation of India FCI, which is the one that is buying the crops from the farmers in Punjab and Haryana and assuring them of a fixed price? Are I mean, is it up to them to sort of make millet, you know, like 2 they they had that whole campaign of anda which you talk about is there to make eggs cool? Is there any sign that there is a make millet cool campaign?2
Mridula Ramesh: 3 It is there at the state level. Right? And if you look at it, the farm, you know, the whole saga of the farm laws, the passing, the repeal and everything else shows how difficult it’s going to be to turn the farm ship around. 9 But here is the ray of hope,1 right? 2 And it’s a slim ray of hope. But let’s take it. there is a start up. You know that we are looking that some of us are looking at investing in, which is working with Punjabi farmers.4 More than three thousand of them and getting them to conserve water.9 And it’s doing that because the paddy they grow by conserving this water, it’s a sustainable tag, which then gets a premium over the regular paddy, which they would sell to the FCI.3 So that is that is two ways it has to start demand first. So that’s why the whole egg campaign in the 80s, you know, get people to change what they eat is an important it has to start that way.9 The second thing again, you know, Orissa. Karnataka. All of them starting with their millet missions again, driving demand first and then getting farmers to change, I think is another way of going. So two things that start demand first and start decentralized might be a better way to go about it.7
Sandip Roy: So what is the I mean with the0 you brought up the farm protests and we saw this, but most of us who don’t follow farm stuff in that detail, just see it in political terms.0 You know, we see who is against whom and think of it as, Oh, is this a defeat for the BJP or whatever? But what is the water component backstory to this protest?1
Mridula Ramesh: Ok, so if you look, I mean,4 Punjab is something I looked at intensively in the book, and if you go back to the Indus period, right, there’s a wonderful study that looks at how Indus Valley farmers changed what they grew, where the Indus Valley over a thousand years1 . So they really matched. You know,3 they went from wheat to barley and back and forth, depending on how rains were in a given year,8 they really matched it. 0 And then you come, you know, 2 Wheat starts making a far wider presence in the Punjab by the British right when they really transformed everything with the canal colonies1 . But then came the Green Revolution. Paddy was just seven percent of Punjab’s crop area in nineteen in the nineteen sixties. 1 Today, it’s a major crop. Right? And now you’re taking a place which gets between five hundred to seven hundred millimetres of rain and asking it to grow something between thousand to one hundred, which needs thousand two hundred and forty millimetres of rain. That’s that. Plus wheat. Right?9 And you’re basically giving water for free. So Punjab is not as efficient a user of water as, say, China is because there is there is very little incentive to manage the water. 1 And there is a case study, which is the whole Pani Bacjao Paisa cKamaoMo scheme, which tries to do that. So in the. 1 But3 the water story really is when your overdrawing your the gap between the thousand to forty and that five hundred is really filled with Punjab’s groundwater and Haryana’s groundwater. I mean, it’s that the entire North West.5 And that groundwater is running out 9 tucked deep within the appendices of a groundwater report that is the state level committee that opined saying groundwater will run out in 20 to 25 years. 0 Right.2 So that’s the water story, because you’re getting a dry land to export its precious insurance of groundwater to the rest of India. And to the world.3
Sandip Roy: 4 Because you also mentioned that one of the theories nobody knows this for certain about why the Indus Valley civilization disappeared. Was that because of climate change or something, the water might have run out that it just ran out of water? 0 Could we, 1 as the groundwater disappears, could we see the same thing happening to today’s Punjab?5
Mridula Ramesh: So. 0 Water played a very big role in the Indus Valley’s civilizations, but disappearance or dismantling it is one of the elements, but there’s both the disappearance, the shifting of river and the change in the climate. 9 And that’s something we’ve forgotten in our history, right? 2 The climate has changed multiple times in the past, and each time it’s changed, there’s been like, Oh, you know, Great Kingdoms have fallen because it just foundationally destabilizes a society.6 And what one of the climate models say about, you know, the northwest of India is. It’s a good chance that rainfall may go down, which means we are already overdrawing something. So if your recharge goes down even further and we continue this cycle of drawing out whatever we are, the chance was running out, you know, is profound0 . And that’s the question I ask What will the next generation of farmers in India’s northwest do? 5 And you know, India’s food security depends on these, too. 1 So. I mean, if if you go by what is said, it’s not a question of if, but it may be a question of when.0 Do we actually
Sandip Roy:Do we habe Have a sense, Mridula, of how much groundwater we have in general tapped into and how much is left?1
Mridula Ramesh: 4 No. Sorry. That’s that’s that’s that’s that’s sort of the problem, right? 25:00 I mean, we have like in Delhi, for instance, 25:03 that we know it’s a lot, we know how much it,25:06 let me put it this way. 25:08 We know the flpws. We have a good estimate of the flaws, right? You know, how much is entering and how much is being taken out.25:15 But that, you know, if you look at the ground water column, some of it has been there for millions of years, and it’s very difficult to estimate exactly how much there is.25:26 And that’s the problem. It’s invisible and it’s uncertain, and it’s convenient, right? You combine all these three together and you flip on that Borwell and things flow out.25:36
Sandip Roy:25:37 What have what have we done in terms of trying to curb borewell use?
Mridula Ramesh: 25:42 Oh, so, you know, there is this case study I gave of Delhi where people have there is been there have been laws in Delhi saying borewells are forbidden, etc. But Sandeep, it’s it’s really difficult.26:04 No, it’s a pretty easy to run a borwell when it’s really difficult to curb it. And that’s why I think the latest thing is to get ground level functionaries to, you know, entrusted with making sure sealed board wells are sealed. 26:18 And then you have this whole, you know, equality argument, which is valid. You know, if a community says, Hey, you’re not giving me municipal water, how do you expect me to live?26:29 You know, I do need my bore well. And then what do you say to that? One may say that should the community have come up there in the first place26:37 , but then you get into all this urban, you know, land planning and all of that,26:43 which is, I think we don’t know. You know,26:48 there is that proverb, right? We will know the value of water when the well runs dry. And to me, at least that was when I woke up.26:57 So I think a lot of us are waking up because groundwater is running dry, and that’s probably the best control that is coming.27:06 And you know, that’s I mean, that’s sort of a parallel to the climate change crisis, right? You keep ignoring it. It’ll keep talking in a louder voice.27:12
Sandip Roy: So you. 27:14 Let’s talk about your wake up moment. So basically, this is. When was this when the water ran out in your home? And this is in Madurai?27:23
Mridula Ramesh: Yeah. This is in Madurai. So, you know, again, we call them the chokhi cooler. It’s a place for the pond and groundwater runs out, so it tells you how far we’ve come. And this was in 2013, just after my daughter was born.27:41 So you actually had time to look at it.27:43 And, you know, for that, 27:46 I was just looking at the emails from that period for the first few months. 27:49 We really thought those are fault with a borewell when we thought that it had a problem to do with the technology. We never once thought the groundwater could run out never once. And it was after months and months and months when we were buying water and realizing all at once how expensive it is to have a garden28:11 . And it, you know, our demand was just a black hole because we didn’t know where we were using it.28:16 So that’s when we said, OK, fine, we need to understand how we use our water.28:22 And we started placing meters and it’s, you know, so few people at that time had meters that it was it was an exercise in and of itself figuring out where the meters needed to be placed, water, etc.. And but once the black hole was replaced with data, you all the data to show you where to act, you know, and the interventions are both cheap and that easy.28:47 And that’s the thing, right? 28:49 The home,28:50 as long as water remains invisible, it’s going to always be a source of vulnerability.28:55
Sandip Roy: So did it surprise you where you were using a wasting most water?29:00
Mridula Ramesh: 29:02 The garden was a water guzzler. Right, and that’s another change that, you know, our modern sensibilities have brought to us that we use a lot of chemical fertilizers today and we’ve given up on compost for us where we manage our waste in homes, so we create our own compost. 29:24 And that’s a game changer because the compost really changes the soil structure, pulls in the water and holds it and the garden starts using a lot less water if you use it that way.29:36 So for us, you know, we’re realizing the garden was a water guzzler29:40 kitchen tap with another big water guzzler the moment you have the data to so easy to intervene and change that.29:47
Sandip Roy: 29:49 You say, it was easy to intervene, but but when you were doing this and you hear about rainwater harvesting and all of these, what was your what were your neighbors reactions? Were they enthused by this or were they like aeh30:05
Mridula Ramesh: A little bit of the eh, so I have to be careful, I live with a lot of my neighbors are my relatives, so.30:16 So. But, you know, if.30:20 30:24 I’m just trying to think, yeah, it’s. Oh, yeah, I mean, it’s very difficult to sort of. Persuade someone to change their ways until the crisis comes to bite.30:40 Right. 30:42 So in the initial times when our house ran out of groundwater and everybody else had it, they were OK. But in 2017, Madurai had its worst drought in a hundred and forty years.30:53 And so when everybody was spending a fortune buying water, we didn’t need to right?30:59 And that’s when questions start getting asked on What are you doing? How are you doing it or you’re using so little water? You know, how are you recycling your water, et cetera? 31:10 And that started coming through and. 31:14 Again, you know, you asked me how serious is the water crisis and are we at tipping point? And I’m just moving away from my neighbors to, you know, a global thing in two thousand fifteen, they were not that many water startups that it didn’t make sense for so many people to do it today. That’s where people are really asking, saying, Can we reuse water?31:38 How can we reduce water? Can we measure our water? 31:41 Because so many households like ours is running out and water is making itself, we feel visible.31:49
Sandip Roy:31:52 But to press this point about the difficulty of making people change their ways, I mean, I think there are some things that you that are simple and no brainer where you say turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving, 32:06 you know, that is not.32:08 I just have to remember to do it, but it’s not asking too much of me. 32:14 In your book, you detail the various ways that then you sort of take a water audit of the factories that you are responsible for to figure out where the waste is happening in all of that. 32:26 Now you come from a family which has a, you know, it has a business empire, the TVs, business empire.32:32 Was it difficult for you to preach this mantra of water conservation to throughout the, you know, at least your family, the businesses they controlled? And did other businesses get interested in it?32:48
Mridula Ramesh: 32:51 Ok, so here’s the thing, right? If you Preach the water mantra through a lens of conscience. It’s not going to be very effective.33:06 Right.33:09 And this is something that I’ve learned over time that conscience is great in trying to make a change. It’s less great for trying to sustain a change. 33:20 And in my journey. I find preaching only takes you that far.33:27 Right, and nobody will make a change unless they know how the cost benefit is for them,33:34 and which is why I try not to speak that much but try to relate it to their own lived experiences.33:43 33:44 So there has been a good reception where people have gotten it impacts them, and then they come back and it’s moving forward,33:58 but here is the other thing, I think. It’s important to speak out because when I started on this journey, my many members, family, friends, et cetera, really thought this was a midlife crisis gone badly wrong.34:14 And I get a lot less of that today.34:18 Ok. And that’s because the world itself has changed.34:22 And for businesses, consumers, investors, courts and courts are all saying the same thing, right? T34:32o day, courts are very, very loath to look the other way when there is a protest and they see a company violating some law34:40 . Investors are saying we won’t put money into you.34:42 So, you know, if I was to go and tell an uncle or a cousin saying, you should save water because it’s the good thing to do. They’ll be nice to me, but, you know, not even an uncle, say another business colleague. There’ll be, you know, they’ll listen to me, but they’ll say, OK, yeah, whatever.34:59 But when the investor, a customer says, I’m not going to buy you a thing unless you’re being responsible, I think that talks a lot louder.35:07 So again, conscience is great, but I think incentives are more important.35:12
Sandip Roy:35:11 Is it time, then to talk much more in the same way as we talk about a carbon footprint, about a water footprint, of things we buy and use because I was astonished to read in your book that it takes about 2700 litres of water to make a simple cotton T-shirt.35:33
Mridula Ramesh: Yeah. And so something that’s actually why the second book got written, OK, the first book got written because I ran out of water and learned about climate change and said, You know, people need to understand it in an Indian context and language that, you know, it’s understandable.35:51 But when I started participating in climate change conversations, I said, everyone’s talking about carbon. But the climate itself talks through water. And why is no one talking about that?36:01 And you know, we seem to have crossed certain climate thresholds and India needs to, you know? Well, get conscious about its water,36:12 but try coming to this water footprint. What is really interesting is two things. One is the bulk of the two thousand seven hundred liters in growing the cotton crop.36:24 That’s very often rain fed, so it has everything to do with the yield of the cotton. 36:30 And India has a horribly, you know, it’s a very low yield, right? So China’s water footprint is far lower than India’s simply because China has a better yield. 36:42 And that really has to do with the dynamics in what I call the last mile of farming.36:49 You know, the path to reaching the small and medium farm.36:52
Mridula Ramesh: The second aspect of the water footprint in the T-shirt’s life cycle is how you treat you, so both of us are wearing colored clothes, right?37:03 So providing the color what is called processing or dyeing and that uses of water and treating it costs money,37:12 right?37:13 And you know, what astonished me is that a ten dollar T-shirt in Nineteen Ninety One sells for about nine dollars, 70 cents in 202137:27 . There’s not a heck of a lot of sustainability that you can do when margins are so slim, right? And then there is two things that we need to say Look, this is important and we need to pay just a little. We’re talking five to six rupees per T-shirt extra. That’s all we’re talking about extremely responsible treatment of water, 37:48 and that somehow hasn’t percolated the consciousness. I mean, I talked to buyers, I talked to customers and customers are getting it. I think hopefully they can convince their buyers that, Hey, what I buy, it’s important. 38:02 This is important to me. I buy your stuff if you don’t do it.38:05
Sandip Roy: Are places like Tirupur where so much of our T-shirts come from? Are they not reading with the same water? I mean, has their wake up moment not come?38:15
Mridula Ramesh: Yeah, they have. Their wake up moment came right because that that dam held up all the effluents to think and the farmers started to protest. And in 2011, the whole sector got shut down. Right. And for us, the whole industry, an industry that provides it’s one of the biggest employers of women outside agriculture got shut down38:36 because, you know, it was just a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. 38:40 So they wake up. Moment came. But unfortunately, what happened is with us in so many other sectors, we started following a K-shaped model.38:52 So there is this the larger groups who are catering to the more, you know, sustainable brands, etc. they are now treating their water. 39:00 They are being responsible and they’ve moved on.39:03 But what about the, you know, the hole in the wall outfits for whom you know that bpaisas of margin still make a difference? I think they’re the message hasn’t sunk through again. It’s not just conscience, it is. It is a question of paying that three to four rupees 39:21 and making sure it goes to those people to think so39:24 . I mean, I was talking to a person who set up an effluent plant in Tirupur So you can have this, you can have the law. But you know, again and again, the theme in the book is. Policy and laws only go so far39:38 because there’s such a diverse country and the lived experience of the law really requires the local community to be vigilant as well as incentives to be structurally aligned.39:51
Sandip Roy: And so what can the government do in in this regard, because if we believe that water is a right to be provided by government 40:05 as we seem to do, the problem, you say, is that then we suck it out of the ground and use it without responsibility. 40:14 So one thing is to if you privatize water, which many places have done and then you have to pay for it and then you are more watchful of it.40:23 But could it not be a right provided by the government and yet used responsibly? Is there a model for that?40:30
Mridula Ramesh: 40:33 Well, Israel and Singapore do it right, 40:35 but I think I’m not and. Ok.40:41 Let me start again. 40:41 Israel and Singapore do it, and you know, one of the things that I say is let’s don’t try to solve India’s water problems at one, and it’s just you will get discouraged even before you start.40:53 But Chennai is 4 Israels, Delhi is like several Singapore’s.41:00 So let us start one neighborhood at a time. And perhaps you know that’s where you need everyone to push.41:07 You know, one thing that I really learned on this journey is democracy is not really an armchair sport.41:14 It’s not we at the local level, you need people to get involved in whatever way possible. 41:21 You know, whether you stand shoulder to shoulder with the local government and saying, OK, I, it’s my tax. I will also help in sort of rejuvenating it, coming up with ideas, you know, persuading your neighbor that perhaps you should start monitoring your water demand.41:38 And I see that every success put in the story is that it’s all hands pushing together because otherwise it’s going to be so as if the government provides water and it doesn’t charge for it. I don’t think we value it. 41:55 And yeah, and at the same time, for the economically vulnerable, you do need water provided at very concessional rates.42:05 It also you need the government and the private sector to work together and civil society and individual citizens and academics and scientists, all of us.42:14
Sandip Roy: Yeah, because I think one of the fears that people have when it comes to converting drinking water into a private good that especially in a country like India, it could adversely affect women and lower castes and classes because so much of Dalit politics has often been about access to the tank.42:35
Mridula Ramesh: No, no, no, absolutely. I mean, we found that in our tank studies as well. I’m not glossing over the caste issue at all42:43 . Are very real and very valid point. But you know, I I will push back on the women thing,42:50 right?42:50 Because in our studies, we find that women, you know, it’s not a utopia today. 42:55 42:56 It’s, you know, it’s most, you know, 42:59 many of the households that we looked at got water often in the middle of the night once every few days, especially in the summer. 43:08 And it was the women who had to run, jostle, fight, push, beg, bribe, cajole and carry those pots of water home. 43:17 So, yeah, on the women thing, I will push back saying, you know, it is a pretty bad situation today. 43:25 And if you can get some efficiency in the system because there is a problem with efficiency, that is tremendous leakages and losses that women perhaps may become better. But point well on the tank ecosystems, we’ve seen it too.43:41
Sandip Roy: 43:40 There are several stories of experiments that have worked, and I wanted you to explain one of them, so perhaps you could talk about what happened in Alvar and how they managed to change things around.43:55
Mridula Ramesh: C O, 43:58 Rajendraji and I have spoken so many times about this, and I think, you know,
Sandip Roy: You should explain who that
Mridula Ramesh: Is. Introduce Rajendra Singh. He’s the water man of India.44:08 And you know, one of the things you know, when I was going back and asking him again and again about the stories, he said, Look, I was a ayurbedic, dr? So that I came there and I wanted to help. 44:20 My focus was teaching the children. Then, you know, addressing night blindness, which was common in that area44:28 . And he said, you know, a villager came to him and said, We don’t want this. You know, we you’re giving us something that they really don’t want any need water.44:37 And he like, you know, even when people intervene, they don’t often ask the population in which they’re intervening what they want, right? 44:48 And he asked that such an important question. He said, I don’t know. And can you tell me, you know, and that was that that to me was like, you know, I got goosebumps hearing that. 44:59 And that’s when he learned about the traditional technologies of the johads and how the fractures worked and recharging groundwater, and how it was so important to build those check dams to trap the rain flowing down the slopes. 45:16 And then, you know, they repaired one, and that’s what he said. First, people heckled. You know, there was no support, et cetera. 45:25 But when the rains came, the rains did come. Of the johad filled and surprisingly so did a Well, that was near the johad. And you know. Success breeds success,45:40 so they changed, and as they changed, this is another important thing in water, right? It’s not one element alone. It’s not just providing water, it’s all the different parts, the pieces of the equilibrium that looked so unimportant that become important. 45:57 They realized that they needed the upstream forest to hold back the seats so that the Jahar, they wouldn’t have to keep digging all the time.46:05
Mridula Ramesh: So they created the forest, and they also said it’s a sacred forest, so you can’t go and hunt there or take wood from that.46:14 The second thing was demand. Weve been talking a lot about demand. So they said, you know, we can’t grow crops that don’t work with the local water availability.46:26 We cannot have outside cattle come and graze. And then when the river became perennial and you know that that’s the interesting thing of hydrogeologist, right? The jihad, which is a check down, holds back the rain. Some of it, you know, goes and recharges groundwater. 46:43 But some of it goes to help replenish those lean season or summer flows in the river and the river came back to life. 46:52 And then when the river came back to life, there were fish in the river, and then there was an outside contractor who came.46:58 So that’s why they set up a parliament so that the local community could once again have control over how the river’s waters would be used.47:07 Same thing you see in apartment complexes that who’ve gotten their water right. 47:14 There are rules on how you use your water and metering for how you use it, and often something that many of us miss is using different qualities of water within the same house.47:27 You don’t need the same quality of water in your kitchen, tap and in your toilet to flush.47:31 Right. 47:32 So rules like that, how do you treat your sewage? How will we use are treated sewage all of that. So the community sort of is the best controller of the local behavior47:42 , right?47:44
Sandip Roy: 47:44 But how scalable is something like what happened in Alvar? Can’t it be taken up on a much larger scale to replenish tanks in many other communities?47:54
Mridula Ramesh: Sandip if I see a ray of hope in the climate change crisis, it’s the fact that at least in dry places, people have finally understood the magic and the glory of tanks48:08 . I think we’ve it took us many, many blows, but we’re finally getting it right and you’re seeing it in city after city48:16 that at least it’s not48:19 . I’m not saying encroachments have stopped. In our study of 50 tanks, there were three that looked very likely to get encroached any time now.48:27 But people are beginning to get it, 48:32 OK, because the moment you live next to a tank. You’re paying less in buying water. 48:39 So in our study, we found people were paying on average about four hundred rupees a month in buying water because those the municipal water was not enough. But if you lived next to a functional tank, was this a dysfunctional that we paid a hundred rupees less? 48:54 That’s a lot of money.48:57 And so, you know, like NGOs and the private sector is coming and saying, OK, we’ll start rejuvenating tanks.49:04 And I think in Madurai, 19 times got rejuvenated when I wrote about it last. And the water levels went up by hundred to two hundred feet. 49:15 Same thing happening in Chennai. Is it happening? Are all tanks being done?49:20 No. But you know, we finally, after lots and lots of knocks on our head, we finally seem to have gotten that message.49:28
Sandip Roy:49:27 But do we get complacent once the water level goes up? Do we go back to our bad old ways? 49:32 But this tanks require maintenance?49:34
Mridula Ramesh: No, of course we were right, and of course we will. And that’s why we said when we looked at what tanks did in the past, tanks give prestige.49:44 Yes, absolutely. Hear you on the caste dynamics. But they also gave cash flow to the disempowered communities because functional tanks held fish and the were 11 in one tank that we wrote about. I wrote about like there were 11 varieties of fish 50:04 and that diversity with the rise and fall of water levels right in that cash flow went to the community50:11 and you know, it provided a place for livestock to be watered and maintained, etc.. It provided both status and cash flow. 50:22 Today, a sewage filled, garbage filled, you know, mosquito infested tank provides neither status nor cash flow. 50:32 So one way we thought of redoing that in the institute was to really re-imagine them as sites for local tourism. 50:39 So if you provide things like cycling tracks, walking tracks, places to sit, performance spaces,50:47 our performance arts have really, you know, they are crying out for a place to showcase their wonderful ingenuity and talent and charm to the local population.50:59 Maybe the tank next to the tank, you can have a place to do that. A selfie sport Wi-Fi hotspots. This suggestion came from someone younger in our team51:09 and you know it, that whatever works right to get them again, to become centers of community 51:16 and one time that has done some of this in MNadyuri had no water fully encroached. Ok? Zero jobs after getting, you know, the quotes for a newspaper article got courts incolved and world clear out encouragement. There was water. Then they started providing these tourist facilities 1200 jobs51:40 . Right. The moment you have the hundred jobs that complacency, there is a chance that the complacency will go down because if the complacency goes up, the water goes down and the jobs disappear, the people who are employed will start shouting, No.51:54
Sandip Roy: 51:55 Now, a lot of people who are listening to this, the I think, often feel helpless when we talk about things like climate change, water and all of that because they feel like this is something very huge.52:08 We know what can I do with what keeping my tap off while shaving really going to make that difference? 52:16 So if you live in an ordinary house, you’re not in a big apartment complex or something like that. What can you do in terms of your gray water, your rainwater, your sewage?52:27
Mridula Ramesh:52:29 For us, our reject water, so52:33 I’ll say what I did in my house, and then the first thing is if you have a garden, please compost.52:40 It’s just, I mean, it’s a52:42 it’s a game changer on how much you know, how much less water your garden uses and how it holds onto the rain. 52:51 That’s number one. Number two, even in a small house, you know the this this is a very, very old house. 52:59 So if we can do it here, people can do it elsewhere. Also, though. Changing the plumbing is not that difficult, but once you do it, it gives you water resilience just going forward,53:12 so the quality you use to flush your toilets is really not the quality you need in your kitchen.tap53:17 I mean, that’s like the big thing. If you do have an RO plant, right, 53:23 and auto plants people are finding or, you know, the problems of technology. Most of us don’t need an RO plant53:29 like our groundwater has a trace of well over a thousand five hundred53:34 . So we do53:36 . But if you can actually get involved and see how much you’re rejecting and how much you’re actually saving, you can save a lot of water there. Secondly, you can collect the reject again.53:48
Mridula Ramesh: I mean, this is hard for people to do, but it’s so so you don’t need to do that. Often you check the quality to make sure it’s not very salty. 53:56 But if it’s not, you can reuse it again53:59 . Right? So I think it’s the more you just say, OK, I just need to reuse it as much as possible. 54:05 But again, I think the biggest change Sandip is think about water. Acknowledge water.54:14 How many of us do we just take it for granted? 54:17 It’s invisible to us at the moment. You acknowledge it. Like every few months, we come up with something new54:26 . And I think every one of us can come up with something new as long as we acknowledge water, like during the last rains, we found our rainwater fed. Our rainwater was running into the road and he said, No, we want that rainwater. We don’t want it to run away. And we just put grills like we just dug a ditch in the path and we put grills and connected it to a rainwater harvesting pit. Not very expensive, you know, not very rocket science. We did its job.54:57 So again, I think, like in everything else, philosophy first acknowledge water55:03
Sandip Roy:55:04 Before I let you go. Mridula These were the small things we can do, but we often look at government for the big things. And one of the big projects that people have been talking about for so long when it comes to water is the linking of the rivers. What do you think55:20 we should? I mean, does this not harken back to the same of what we were talking about in terms of thinking technology in the end will change everything.55:32
Mridula Ramesh: So here’s the thing, right? 55:34 Let me look at the pros and cons of this. Madurai is a beneficiary of the river linking project. The Periyar was linked to the Vaigai and the benefit has been real.55:49 The linking Project really looks to address the geographic variability of India’s water, and because it plans for so much storage, it addresses the seasonality of India’s water as well. Those are the positives of it. 56:06 And thirdly, I think it works in a democratic construct at a macro scale. 56:15 Now let me come up with the issues with it. The first objection I have is actually pragmatic.56:23 So the river interlinking project and these are just several links, and the full benefit of the project will only come if you have all the links and all the storage together. The first link has taken decades and it’s not operationalized. 56:38 It’s not linked as we speak.56:42 Can we build the same water resilience using decentralized interventions which are cheaper, both on capital and on political capital.56:56 So the first objection that I have is pragmatism, right? 57:00 The second objection I have is that very many of these links could submerge of forest. Right. The link between forest and water is so, so, so important, it’s profound.57:20 So by weakening forests, we are weakening what we’re trying to achieve. 57:27 And the there I think there is a lack of understanding which is beginning to unravel. You know how we look at forests and the link between forests and water.57:39
Mridula Ramesh: And perhaps as we try to do that. You know, and I mean that again goes back to forest valuation, right?57:48 Like are still very much caught up in the British mentality of 60 percent of sixty seven percent of a forest value today, the NPV. You know what you need to pay if you want to divert it isn’t the value of the timber value of the trees. 58:03 The hydrological value is only three percent58:07 , right?58:10 And the problem with that is today, if you start up came, then I’m talking in my world the start up game and it said, You know what? I’ll stop flooding. I’ll give you summer water. I’ll clean your water. I’ll add to rainfall. I’ll be hard, achingly beautiful. And I’ll give all, you know, medicinal plants, et cetera, et cetera. This is a machine I’m going to create.58:31 I think it will be unicorn that more time. But we are paying less than an entry level office workers wages per hectare of this machine. And I think that is all there is.58:42 58:44 There needs to be a greater understanding and perhaps with that greater understanding, we’ll start revisiting this and maybe tweaking it. So we get what we want, which is overcoming the variability of India’s water and getting water to people who need it. But at this, but in a way that’s, dare I say, sustainable.59:07
Sandip Roy: 59:09 That magic words that we use all the time, not always sure what it means, but you said your daughter was born in 201359:19
Mridula Ramesh: 2012 end oif
Sandip Roy: So do you see her she’s grown up with this in a way that you haven’t, do you see in her attitude towards water, even though she’s a young girl right now? Different because she’s grown up with water conservation as part of her upbringing. In a way yours wasn’t, I’m sure.59:43
Mridula Ramesh: Yeah. So, you know, she’s like, Mon you keep talking about farming sewage at the dining table? I will say the sewwagfe on is fabulous.59:54 So what you’re talking about? 59:56 But, you know, jokes about Sandy. I think what is great and you know, this is something you ask me, how do you convince people? And I think some schools are beginning to get it right and they get it.1:07 And this is something I learned from an Odisha government teacher, actually. And he showed in a symposium I attended that when people are taught with examples in their immediate vicinity, they learn very well.1:21 So, you know, when my daughter was in third class, the school asked them to say, OK, estimate how much water you use with buckets. And not only in your house, but in the next house and in, you know, two of your neighbors also comes back to your neighbor point. 1:39 So in our house, of course, we have 15 meters, so she got the exact answer. And then, you know, I feel a little awkward going and telling my relatives like, you know, how are you measuring? 1:49 My daughter has no such compunction. You know, what are you doing? And you just go off and say, Why don’t you know this?1:56 And I think the way we teach our children, you know, and I think today, the next generation is really, you know, they’re going to suffer.1:06 So I think they get the fact that they’re going to be paying the price. And I think they’re very sensitive to these issues.1:12
Sandip Roy: Mridual Ramesh, thank you so much for joining us. It was a great pleasure talking to you.
Mridula Ramesh: Thank you, Sandy. Thank you very much.1:19
'While conscience is good for spurring a change, it is less effective in sustaining a change. That’s why we need good economics and design to come in to sustain the action we want to see,' says Mridula Ramesh.
Mridula Ramesh, Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. and Founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, is out with a new book titled Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It.
Published by Hachette India, it comes three years after her critically acclaimed volume The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It (2018). We bring you an in-depth interview with this author and climate expert, who is also an angel investor with a portfolio of over 15 start-ups, lives in a net-zero-waste-home in Madurai, and is on the board of trustees of World Wildlife Fund India.
Excerpts from the exclusive interaction below:
Why did you choose to write Watershed, and what is your target audience?
My climate journey began when I ran out of water at home. I began writing on climate to make the issue more accessible to people outside closeted climate dialogues. As I began partaking in climate conversations, I realised that while carbon headlines most or all of them, water needed a greater share in those conversations. The warmer climate speaks eloquently through water. For India, one of the most vulnerable countries in this climate crisis, adaptation needs to form an important part of the narrative. And in adaptation, water takes centrestage. My target audience is any Indian – water touches everyone, and everyone has a part to play in its management. The book aims to show you how and why and what to do.
What do you think of the commitments India made at the recent COP-26 in Glasgow? To what extent will they lay the ground for a comprehensive water policy in India?
Many of India’s commitments had to do with carbon. But by increasing the share of renewables within the energy mix, the water consumed by the power sector will go down. To that extent, it is water-positive or water-adjacent. Secondly, India’s earlier commitments on forest cover are water positive as forests are critical to India’s water story. But a water policy, by India’s water’s very nature, must be local, and vary from region to region.
Climate change discourse is often dismissed as being alarmist. When you meet people who are reluctant to give up instant gratification and see present choices through the lens of their impact on future generations, how do you respond? How easy or difficult is it to keep the focus on science, and not get into blaming or guilt-tripping people?
While conscience is good for spurring a change, it is less effective in sustaining a change. That’s why we need good economics and design to come in to sustain the action we want to see.
To get meaningful action, it is important to keep the action local – where the pain of the action and the benefit are somewhat better aligned – and use a number of actors to communicate the necessity for a change, and handhold extensively while making the change. Show and tell is always better than heckling. Lastly, without an economic rationale, no change will be sustainable. After all, why conserve something that is seen as value-less?
What might make people more receptive to hearing about and adopting sustainable practices? It might seem counter-intuitive to aspire to a life of simplicity when everyone around is consuming more and flaunting that as a marker of success and affluence.
First, sustainable does not mean abstinence. Ours is a net-zero-waste house because we manage almost all of the waste we generate. That’s the key. We make biogas and compost after segregating it, rather than dumping it into the corporation bin. Second, make any action easy to adopt. Segregating waste takes no additional time because of the way we have designed the high-waste zones in our house. Using less water in the washbasin does not require conscious thought as we have lowered the water pressure in the tap. Let’s focus on design rather than conscience. Third, responsible consumption is important, and needs good role models. Today, there is a fair bit of green washing going on there, so new and genuine role models would help. That’s the trillion-dollar question, how to make sustainable sexy?
What are the challenges that the agricultural and industrial sectors are currently facing with respect to water? What role can technology play in addressing these challenges?
One problem with agriculture is the rotting of so much of our crop post-harvest. To address this, we need many more small warehouses that are accessible to the smallest farmer, and well-managed technologies such as moisture meters and links with banks to facilitate cheaper credit against stored grain. It’s not the technology per se that makes the difference but, as I have said repeatedly in the book, well-managed technology that makes all the difference.
The same is true in industry. In industry, for example, wherever water is perceived as being precious, tremendous advances in effluent treatment have turned effluent treatment from a cost centre to a profit centre – that is companies go beyond just complying with regulations, to recovering water and chemicals from their effluent treatment plants. Once they do that, they become fully vested in ensuring that every last drop of effluent is treated. What is required is a signal of what is important to manage. If we signal that water demand is worth managing, we will get metering and analytics to flourish. If we signal that we do not care about water demand management, we will get borewells to flourish.
How will India's economic landscape be transformed by water scarcity in the coming years? What are the new revenue streams and job opportunities that you foresee?
Certain industries will stop making sense in dry areas, thermal power plants being a notable example. This can accelerate the switch toward renewables, while adding to the stress of banks who have lent to the promoters of these plants. Industrial use will see a greater scrutiny of its water use; big brands will act as lightning rods for protests. This means that water needs to figure meaningfully in the income statement and balance sheet, far more than it does today. As water becomes more precious going forward, water management births new sectors – sewage treatment, waste water markets, and tank tourism being notable examples.
Do you think that entrepreneurs producing mock meats will help solve our water crisis? In India, vegetarianism and veganism are often discussed through the lens of religion and caste, not in terms of water use and carbon footprint. Do you see this changing?
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist, and book reviewer.
Tell us about the inception of this book.
After that incident, normally one would just move past the situation, right? But this time I had just had a child and I had time off. That got me thinking and trying to put the pieces together why anyone wasn’t talking about this subject. The answer to that question –– why isn’t anyone talking about this –– and what can we do about it, led to the first book, The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It. After the first book, as I started getting more and more plugged into conversations around climate change I realised that most people when they talk of climate change, talk about carbon. One has to get their carbon emissions down and I totally agree, that’s very important. But the climate itself talks in the language of water. You see that in the rising crescendo of storms and floods. Water needs to be a part of the conversation. So this book is a direct result of that.
Since you mentioned your first book, what was your reaction to the wonderful critical reception that it received?
I am very grateful and my English teacher from school wrote to me saying that she is proud of me. But jokes aside, most of the conversation has been through letters I have received from readers from all walks of life. They said that they go back to the book every day. If they want to fix something, they refer to it.
The role of an individual in climate change is often debated with the argument leaning towards policy-level changes for any marked difference. Where do you stand on this scale?
That’s a great question but the real question here is who makes policy? In my previous book there is a small section, written like a play in three parts, which indirectly spoke of policy and said that it won’t make a difference. I got a lot of pushback for it. So this time, in my institute I spoke to 900-plus people asking if they would vote on water or waste. I’m not going to sit in an ivory tower and opine that people care about this. I actually asked people from all walks of life –– auto drivers, domestic help, shopkeepers –– a wide spectrum of people, in the middle of a drought. And the short answer, which I’ve put in my book is: ‘No’! There is this data collected from just one city but there is also rich data coming in from across India by other water surveys and there are lessons in policy-making across the decades in India.
And if politicians find that those policies don’t get them re-elected, they’re not going to make it again. So it’s easy to say let’s push it on policy.
Will good policy make a difference? Of course, it will. I am a pragmatist and I understand the likelihood of that happening. And that’s why I say decentralised policy will make a difference. It’d be wonderful if America could wake up one day, find enlightenment and put a carbon tax or a carbon dividend. It’s been 40 years since everything came out and emissions have only gone up. We chose to become independent when we ran out of water and every story in this book and the previous one is of real people. That sort of resonates with the way India operated before. It was de-centralized with communities taking ownership saying it’s our responsibility. The climate is menacing and it’s got talons, but we’ve got armours too. So if we’ve just thrown away or destroyed our armour, that’s on us and that’s something that only the communities can fix. So, yes, policy can be a wonderful and powerful tool but I won’t hold my breath for it to happen.
What are the lessons that urban-dwellers have to learn from this community-building that we can adapt into our ecosystem to better ourselves?
That is something that is happening in Jakkur lake in Bangalore. There is an NGO that decided to take it up and work with the municipal body, taking up the maintenance of the lake. The idea is to make the tank the centre of the community again. One has to find ways to make the tank a catalyst. One has to create places for people to congregate, take a walk and enjoy the air. One of our associates even thought of Wi-Fi-enabled selfie spots to attract the youngsters. Boating, playgrounds, good food stores, performance spaces –– they all make for a fantastic experience.
Could you tell us a little about the kind of work that happens in your Sundaram Climate Institute?
We are a tiny institute with a fierce belief in data. Waste and water are our two pillars. We believe that global warming has already crossed certain thresholds and India needs to adapt. We look at waste management, which is surprisingly an easy thing to do. One of the things we look at is solutions by making things easier for you. But we also look at attitudes. We have two flagship studies and one of them has been going on for three-plus years. It involves talking to over 2,000 households and finding out their lived reality of water. One can’t just say India has a crisis, it’s not a monochromatic crisis. For the rich, water is peripheral. In the middle, the water crisis is one of uncertainty which only gets worse as you go down the socioeconomic ladder –– it’s heartbreaking. The kinds of compromises that we’ve found that our respondents have had to make is just sickening. One of the second aspects is the study of tanks. One of the things we found is, as long as you have a tank, or a lake nearby, you’re far better off. So many people buy water. And I think 40 per cent in our survey, across the income spectrum, buy water. We try to say, let’s understand the reality and then let’s try and figure out what will work in this very real set. So no, no rose-tinted glasses!
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