Few days ago I woke up full of awe about water. What a wonder is this thing we use many times daily and take for granted. It is odorless, tasteless, colorless, soft, gentle, moist and pliant. It takes the shape of any vessel in which we put it and patiently stays there until we pour or scoop it out days, even years later. We may put it in an open container or a sealed can, water sits quietly without complaining. We may squish it, drop it from the tenth floor, beat it with a stick, or cut it with any instrument; water remains unhurt.
But the same pliant, quiet water pushed by wind turns into tsunami and levels buildings, flattens columns of steel, and razes entire cities. In the open ocean water can lift up a million ton ship like a paper boat, topple, and sink it to the floor in minutes. When heated, water turns into steam. Guided through tubes in a locomotive, steam can push a ten thousand ton train at hundred kilometers an hour. Flowing as river, water sometimes spates across thousands of square kilometers and breaks all bunds built by man to contain it. In its course it scoops up countless tons of loose naked soil and transports it hundreds of miles away. Dams, dykes, big boulders, hills; none can stop an angry river’s flow to its source, the ocean.
Chemists say it is just H²O, but imagine how well are hydrogen and oxygen welded together to make water. At temperatures bearable to humans water is liquid, when heated to 100ºC it turns into steam, and at OºC it freezes. The bond of H and O does not break no matter what we humanly do to it; cunning tricks, of course, can do unthinkably harm.
Most important, however, is that water denotes manifest life. When humans probe other planets they train their keenest eye to look for water; for that means there might also be life. To be precise, life as such is one indivisible whole, very subtle, invisible, and indestructible. It becomes differentiated and visible only when it enters a body made of food. Bodies need water to function; for water inside a body acts as carrier of food and waste materials, air conditioning agent, lubricant, and much more. Hence no living being, neither plant nor animal, can live without water for more than a few days. Hence nature the creator has made secure arrangements for the supply of water to every being, even the humblest to our eye.
First, nearly 70 % of the earth’s surface is covered with salt water of the oceans. That is why when viewed from space our planet earth appears blue. Oceans are full of living plants and animals quite safe from water scarcity! Nor can they possibly destroy or pollute it unless, of course, they become civilized and start acting like us.
Beings of the dry land need sweet water to live and Nature in its wisdom and power has made ample arrangements for its making and distribution. Salt water of the oceans evaporates with the sun’s heat, turns into clouds filled with sweet water, sails across the skies, and falls on land as rain. Trees bushes and grasses receive this bounty in their upraised palms and drink their fill. The overflow slowly runs to the ground to soak the soil and make rivers. Water also goes deep into the ground with the help of roots of plants after they have stored enough for their own needs.
Water that has gone into the ground starts to travel laterally and down thousands of kilometers, i.e. as far as it can go depending on the nature of the ground, and it can continue to roll for thousands of years until some thirsty being taps it.. Most animals living on dry land use river or lake water. Some who live far out from them have to dig into the ground. Small beings such as ants and termites make their homes deep in the bowel of the earth close to moisture. Rodents, foxes, and other larger animals like us dig holes in the ground to get water.
Nature slowly evolved these water supply systems to such perfection that even after millions of years they are working as new. It is only due to these marvels that countless species of plants and animals have survived on dry earth so successfully for such a long time.
According to evidence dug up by physical anthropologists and archeologists the human line diverged from the primate order 3+ million years ago. Throughout this long period they found Nature’s water supply system quite adequate and did not suffer excessively from thirst. Only in the last ten thousand years, after a few human communities adopted agriculture, did the ground water network began to crack in some areas. We will go into more details of ground water depletion elsewhere in this book. Here we will examine water problems most of us are experiencing daily and directly where we live. I will briefly describe some of my own experiences; readers must recall their own from where they sit. For environments vary widely from place to place and it is hazardous, confusing and needless to generalize. Our brothers and sisters who do so get into endless futile discussions. Only when we stick to direct experience can we gain conviction and be motivated to sensible action so badly needed at this time of looming peril.
About 50 kilometers due south of Bangalore city a group of friends including my wife Sudesh and me jointly acquired 120 acres of land about 14 years ago. This land was under living forest until about 60 years ago, and is adjacent to a large reserved forest now. But when we bought it, it was quite exhausted from careless cultivation for some years and heavy grazing thereafter. It was so bare one could freely walk all over it. There were only three mutilated trees and a few Lantana bushes here and there. Tiny acacia sprouts were everywhere but the goats nibbled at their leaves and did not give them a chance to grow. Soil had eroded so badly that one saw only little pebbles and gravel on the surface. We fenced the land and after 6-7 years of hard vigilance curbed grazing. The land turned green with grasses, bushes and even trees shooting up from dormant roots. By now all the ground is covered with vegetation. There are approximately 5000 trees, some of them 25 feet tall. More recently, however, the growth seems to have slowed down. The reasons might be: 1. Four year long draught and 2. Fall of ground water level. Even in its worst condition our land had one quite strong and at least two weak perennial streams. All of them have dried up. The reason seems to be several new bore wells in our area fitted with electric or diesel pumps; all to draw huge amounts of water for irrigation.
In the forest adjacent to our land the same thing is happening. Till 6 years ago on our hikes in the forest we always found small streams in which to bathe and frolic. Now they have all dried up. Even the strong stream in the valley down below has weakened. We hear from the villagers living there that it goes completely dry part of the year that did not happen earlier.
A more dramatic illustration of the fall of ground water is to be seen in Gumlapuram village just two kilometers down the hill from us. This village has about 300 houses. Most of them had their own wells and all of them were full of water until about 7 years ago. Today all of them are dry. The reason is obvious: ten years ago there were no tube wells in the area, now there are several; all pumping away to irrigate fancy flowers for export and exotic foods for the rich in Bangalore. The ground water is virtually gone for the ordinary villagers and even for the tube well owners it is rapidly falling.
We also have a rented apartment in a Bangalore suburb called Whitefield. Two years ago our town council’s 5 tube wells went dry. They drilled several more but without finding water. . Most privately owned wells in our area have also gone dry and many new ones have failed. We and other residents of the area had to start buying water from farmers and traders who own tanker trucks. We now pray for long life for the farmers’ wells.
From what we hear, the water situation in other parts of Bangalore is by no means more promising. People pin their hopes on Cauvery water, but we all know that Bangalore is exploding and the river is dwindling. Can the two make a happy marriage?
In March 2004, two Delhi friends and I went on a tour of Panjab villages. Between us we had several relatives and friends in the region. So we were able to meet and talk freely with farmers and workers known to our relatives. From our first stop to the last one concern that our informers frequently shared was the rapid fall of ground water level.
This area was known for ample water for irrigation from the time I was a boy in western Punjab. The reasons were: it is in the foot of the Himalayas, several rivers flow through the area, and there is an extensive functioning canal network.
Farmers told us that fifty years ago one needed to dig from 6 to 15 meters to strike water. Now it is nowhere less that thirty and in some places as low as 80 meters or more. We saw well drillers at work in several villages. Most of them were going down 80 to 100 meters.
With the introduction of high yielding dwarf wheat and rice seeds in the last 40 years the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has increased many fold. Consequently, the crops need more intensive irrigation as well. To make things worse, free supply of electricity to Panjab farmers has made them negligent. Too much water is pumped out and at least a quarter is wasted.
In any case the rate of ground water depletion in Panjab is alarming.
Some Random Experiences
My ancestors lived in a place called Daska in Sialkot district close to the Himalayas. They had come from somewhere in Rajasthan 400 years ago. In their original home soil had turned into sand and most people had slowly moved away. Four or five years before I was born my father moved from Daska to the newly opened Lyallpur area where pastures looked greener. The rest of the family followed in a year. My father’s brother’s family also migrated some time later and a big joint family had assembled with all its problems. I was five years old when my father moved to Karachi and lived there for ten years till 1947. About 1943, when there was danger of Germans attacking Karachi, my father sent us to Daska. We lived there for nearly two years. This gave me the opportunity to get to know the town and the area. It was different from both Karachi in the Sindh desert, and Lyallpur on the edge of it. Sialkot was in a belt of fertile land touching the Pir Panjal in the north and the Ganges valley and Rajasthan in the south. This was the area where the Sanskrit speaking Aryans are supposed to have lived. The Vedas and the Upanishads were written here. Evidently, this area somehow escaped the fate of Sindh and Rajasthan where Indus Civilization flourished and turned the soil into sand. Possibly the people and the culture of this area were different. The Rishis had talked in favor of Aranyak Sabhyata (forest culture) over and over. They had also opposed the city-based civilizations. They could have seen the Indus Civilization and what it did. My imagination runs too fast here. I must pull the reins.
I distinctly remember how safe, friendly, and pleasant this simple rural area was. Ordinary vegetables and chapattis (flat unleavened bread) tasted much better here than in Karachi or Lyallpur. People said it was due to the quality of water. All wells in the fields and in the homes of town dwellers were full. But the needs of people for water were meager. Wheat and other cereal crops were not irrigated; they grew only with the rainwater. Only small vegetable growers used irrigation. They used Persian wheel for lifting water. Soil was fertile. In the rainy season I distinctly remember seeing millions of earthworms crawling on the bunds. Having come from the city I had never seen them, and was afraid. Later I learned that they were friendly and totally harmless.
I was born in 1931 in the Lyallpur district of west Panjab (now in Pakistan). For a long time it had been an arid, treeless, semi-desert, splattered with bushes, and very sparsely populated by nomadic cattle herders. About the turn of the century the British colonial rulers built a canal system. Farmers from the rest of Punjab flocked here and became rich by harvesting heavy crops from virgin land. Traders (like my family) and people of other skills followed the farmers in the hope of sharing their bounty. All this had gone on for 20 years when I was born.
I recall that there was ample water in the canals and it flowed into square fields called murabba (literally square fields). Our house, like most others, had drilled wells fitted with a hand pump. These wells were 5 to 10 meter deep and had ample water. Sixteen years later, in 1947, when the country was partitioned and we had to migrate to east Punjab, this area was still prosperous but the decline had begun. The land was turning saline. A hard clay crust was forming a foot below the surface. Moisture was being trapped and pushed back up with the salts of the earth. The soil was fluffing with white salts visible right on the surface. The affected land turned unproductive; it was not good even for building houses because salty moisture rose into the walls and disintegrated the bricks and cement. Later, we have been reading in the newspapers that this process has accelerated and most of the farm lands are also affected. After this I went to college for four years in a small town in east Panjab. Here the ground water was high, main crops rain fed and only small vegetable patches irrigated with well water lifted with simple devices run with bullock power. Canals were few and far between.
From 1951 to 1956 I lived in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Forest was still alive and ground water level was high. All major crops (wheat, Jawar, Tur, cotton, oil seeds) were grown without irrigation. There was water in the rivers and the wells in towns and villages were full. All this began to change in the fifties. Bore wells were put in everywhere to irrigate orange or banana orchards and other commercial crops such as onion, ginger, potato, and sugar cane. I still have friends in the area who I periodically visit; only last month, i.e. in February 2005, I was there. What I heard and saw was saddening. The fall in the ground water level is alarming. In fact ground water is virtually gone. Orange orchards are being cut on a large scale and market gardening is weakening rapidly. In some places even the traditional crops cannot be grown with rain water because the soil’s capacity to soak and hold water has been curtailed.
In the sixties and seventies we lived in upstate New York. Both dairy and crop farming were still quite strong in the area. About the middle of the sixties smaller farms began to close shop. By mid-seventies very few large ones were surviving. The ground water level dropped but not enough to affect domestic supplies. The big change here was in the quality of water. All ground water now is contaminated and not fit to drink. People buy treated packaged water for drinking.
Sweet water in all our rivers, lakes, ponds, and under the ground constitutes about 3% of the total available on our planet; the rest is salt water of the oceans. All our sweet water comes from rainfall. All animals and plants need water to survive. Nature, therefore, has evolved a complex mechanism for the collection, preservation and distribution of this precious resource. It works beautifully and assures adequate supply to water to every being where it lives. In fact it is hard to imagine a better system.
Very simply put, this system has the forest on one end and widely scattered plants and animals on the other. The forest pulls moisture from the clouds, provides it soft landing on its head to soften its blow on the soil, lets most of it to flow off to make streams, ponds and rivers, and gently sends the rest into the ground. Of course the trees of the forest use what they want and preserve some for future use underneath themselves. This system has worked quite well for millions of years and is capable of adapting to change of environment. .
About ten thousand years ago some human communities began to do agriculture and quickly developed civilizations. To produce large amounts of grain they cleared forests, ploughed up the land and produced large quantities of grains. Other species living on the land were denied food and allowed to die. As the supply of food for the humans increased their number also exploded. This gave rise to a vicious circle.
On the one end civilized humans cut forest for timber and firewood to satisfy the needs of their growing populations and on the other they started taking too much water for their cities and for irrigating their crops. This double attack over a period of time busted Nature’s water distribution system. Evidence gathered so far shows that lack of sweet water was the major cause of the collapse of civilizations.
Today our Industrial Civilization is repeating what earlier ones did before. The major difference is that with our superior technology and greater use of fossil energy we can accelerate the process many fold and destroy Nature’s water distribution network in a short time.
Some people say we are good at laying pipes and we can fill them with desalinated sea water. I say, no thank you, I prefer to stick with ground water.
March 5, 2005