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 resonant 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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