‘Watershed’: Time to get water-wise

‘Watershed’: Time to get water-wise

Watershed: How We Destroyed India's Water and How We Can Save It by Mridula Ramesh. Hachette. Pages 432. Rs699

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.

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.

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