Statistically Speaking: The Story of Water

[I had written this article for a magazine called The Rosetta, for which I have been occasionally helping out with. It was written quite a few months ago, but just got published. Find the original article with some pictures on the magazine site.

In other news, I am currently in a place which is definitely not water starved. I hope I can get back very soon!]

I have an Indian everyman in mind. For today, let me call him Mr. Sharma.

Mr. Sharma has a fetish for water. He takes his own time (and not to mention an incredible amount of water) doing his ablutions – slow and careful brushing of teeth (he wants to be a Colgate model), washing his utensils for his coffee (wash once after using and once before using; lizards are so common), wash his feet after coming home from the vegetable market (cleanliness is next to godliness), an elaborate bathing ritual (upholding the traditions of the Indus Valley Civilization), and not to forget the water play using his lotta (an integral part of everything Indian). Mr. Sharma is a typical Indian.

No wonder Indians withdraw almost 633 cubic metres of water per capita per year while Europe withdraws only 586. Paper has its own advantages. If Mr. Sharma were to dissect his daily water requirements, he would realize that the water withdrawn by him and his ilk measures upto 87 buckets a day (at 20 liters per bucket). How much water did you use today? How much water did you waste today?

Aah, numbers playing games with you? It’s funny the way statistics can hide reality as much as they show it. The number (87 buckets) actually includes all forms of water withdrawals, including usage for irrigation, industries and so on. The domestic consumption would come to only about 3 buckets per day or 20 cubic metres (ADB). But again, do all of us even have access to 3 buckets of water? My friends from Chennai would certainly disagree.

But then, statistics can tell stories. Stories of change, of evolution, of men who lived and men who are remembered, of wars and loves, of births and deaths, of civilizations, of forests and rivers, of how we affect nature. And effect we do – negatively. Per capita availability of water in India has gone down from 5177 cubic metres in 1951 to about 1820 in 2001. Our increased national virility has had much to do with it. Over a billion people (up from 361 million) now need water to fill their lottas to elutriate themselves after the act. 1820 cubic metres means less than a bucket of water a day.

Bislery, Kinley, Aquafina, Evian, Himalaya – the list is endless. We can, of course, buy water. Water which costs 25 paise and sells for 10 rupees. India is rising, India is shining. Isn’t water supposed to be free? Coca-cola withdraws half a million litres of water per day at less than Rs. 25 thousand per year . At every bottle at 10 rupees, that’s about Rs. 182 crore. Contrast it with Rs. 25 thousand, and it is a profit of 75 thousand times. Indian laws stipulate that if you own a piece of land, you also own all the water beneath it. You can siphon off all the water from under your neighbors’ feet – legally. Wish it were oil.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Water markets are emerging. Farmers in Tirupur have begun to abandon farming so that they can sell ground water at a premium to water hungry industries and urban users around the region. At least some families would not go without food, even though we might not get water to drink after the meal in a few decades.

We, Indians, are not alone. Global water consumption has grown at double the rate of population growth, and the figure for 2000 was about six times the figure for 1950. If the current consumption pattern continues, almost 48 per cent of our population would live in “water stressed” regions by 2025. Water shortage has been reported near bottled water factories in Texas and the Great Lakes factory. German RWE and French Vivendi control 40% of the world’s water market. Vivendi and Suez, the number three, have revenues of over $70 billion . Water is big business already. I think the way we are going, we will make it one of the largest industries in the world. The global GDP will swell, fat cats will get fatter, and the poor people would not even have water to drink.

Where does all this water come from? The catchment area of our major rivers covers about 85% of our land area (CIAWRM). Our rivers fall from Shiva’s knots and never run dry; we call them perennial. The Gangotri glacier, currently 30.2 Km long and between 0.5 and 2.5 Km wide, is the primogenitor of one of holiest rivers, the provenance of the livelihood of hundreds of millions, and has been found to be receding at an ever increasing pace since 1971. Over the last 25 years, we have pushed the glacier back by almost 850 metres, 76 metres between 1996 and 1999 alone (EO). The government has more pressing needs. There is some election or the other every alternate month. Isn’t it essential to communicate their successes to the franchise, contrive to fracture them on the basis of religion and caste, and of course, utilize the five odd years they have in office to hoard such that the next few generations would have enough to eat and drink.

Statistics can be biased. They acquire the colour of the lenses you read them through. A trip to Coorg in the beginning of April, and all we found was parched ground, yellow soil, lifeless, livelihoodless. It has rained since, but it is usually dry for well over half a year, and all the farmers can do is twiddle thumbs. Bisleri at Rs. 10 per litre is too expensive to water their fields. And natural water is receding fast.

Did you turn off your tap today?

Statistics and data credits courtesy: WRI, The Hindu, Indian Budget – Population Figures, Klessill Lance- Bottled Water Industry, Larsen Emily Arnold and Janet – Bottled Water –Pouring Resources Down the Drain, National Portal of India-Water Resources, World Watch Institute, The CIA Factbook, Water Resources Ministry, Asian Development Bank.

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Missing Feeling

So, I have been feeling low for awhile and I figured that the single biggest thing I miss right now is the feeling of Durga Puja. Having grown up in laid back Calcutta, with a heavy dose of vacations and dollops of Pujo during this season. Have had my share of fun in the Navratri — from getting sloshed to fun dandiya nights. However, it still doesn’t feel complete. Somehow, there is a large missing entity in the equation, and things just don’t add equally up on both sides.

I think what separates Calcutta during this time from the rest of the country is that Puja is just not a festival you enjoy, not just another set of rituals you observe, not just a holiday you chill out on, not just old relatives you don’t meet the rest of the year — Puja is a way of life. It’s all pervasive — it’s in the air, the crowded streets, the blaring music, the glittering lights, the all-night food stalls selling egg chow-mein, in the new clothes, bedecked women, and kurta-clad men, in the silent corridors of power and the menagerie therein, in the adda sessions and the ogling and the swooning, in the temples and outside, in the priest and even the atheist (holiday, after all!), in the closed offices and annual bonuses, in the pandals and new-yet-worn-out sandals, in anticipation of new things and frustrations of those over-used, in the sparkle of people’s eyes, in their troubles and smiles. It’s just one heady feeling — when the world around you is caught in a time-warp, when nothing else matters but Puja.

I am guessing I am missing that feeling right now. There is fun and there is work and both might overlap, but there is no single event that completely captures all your imagination, your thinking, your whole existence for a period of four days. It’s like being in love just enough.

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The Ostrich Attitude

Sometimes, when the gravest of problems stare us in the face, we choose to ignore it just because we find that we can’t do anything about it. And in most cases, we just ignore it and carry on with life — laughing, dancing, acting — as if everything is going to be set right, somehow. We just repose our faith in the omnipotence of Time — innocently believing that it is going to use a magical formula to answer all those questions, solve all those problems we haven’t a clue about. I wonder if it is called complacence, callousness, or just plain powerlessness.

To use a metaphor, I often see people using in Computer Science, if a problem is intractable, we would just create a perfect model of the universe, where we just elide a large class of problems by definition, hiding them in the assumptions section hoping nobody will notice that those assumptions don’t really hold in practice. Our simple model of eat, sleep, work (in that order) and party with your salary cheque without a worry for anybody else fails miserably when real life asks questions which we neither comprehend nor seek to do anything about — because our limited vocabulary hasn’t prepared us for something of this magnitude.

Even if sometimes we are aware of the problem, we realize that there is very less that we can do about it. In principle, we know what is do be done. We can just issue a few instructions and hope everything will be hunky-dory very soon. In principle. In practice, execution is far tougher (and this is not limited to the scope of this exposition). In practice, we realize that our brilliant ideas, and one-stroke solutions fall inadequately in a quicksand, the logistics are so complicated that we just propose, we never prove. We console ourselves with the false assurance that somebody will implement those ideas for us. And one day the false assurance comes back to haunt us.

The problem, in most cases, of course, is going to have many facets. What we observe and what we try to cure is only the symptoms. The real thing lies deep down — in the deepest recesses of people’s minds, and they have been implanted not by one statement, one event, or one person, but by years of internalizing the environment and people’s reactions to it. The problem, in most cases, is deep-rooted, inexplicable, irrational, and very very dangerous. We just observe simple deficiencies, deviations in behaviour and we just hope that it will all be alright in Time. We can not do much more because being able to look deeply into people and reason is something we haven’t figured out very well. Science falls short on this great promise — we have learnt to built machine that work faster than us, but we still can’t understand ourselves. We just scratch the surface, make up some explanations, propose some solutions we can’t even validate and claim victory. And soon, we cower in the face of defeat.

And if everything fails, we escape. We provide explanations, we run off on work, we circumambulate in order to avoid the problem, we evade not just with alcohol (that is the easy one!), but we do with sleight of words and actions.

And then one day that problem we’d hoped so dearly would somehow solve itself, gets out of the box and slaps us across our face. And with all our accomplishments, our competencies, our arrogance, pride and confidence, we feel helpless. We wish to hide ourselves in the pillow, unable to fathom the why, how and how to of the problem.

Powerlessness. Helplessness. Cluelessness. A welcome feeling?

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