The first rains break over Delhi. Yet, many taps are dry. Streets have been flooding in Mumbai. Yet, people rely on tankers for water. For other parts of India, reeling under heat and waiting in a collective gasp for rainfall, water is like a dream.
It is ironic that a star most famous for drowning onscreen — under gallons of water — had to bring attention to the fact that parts of India have none.
The need for water joins us all, and its absence divides us, but strangely water tends to be missed only when we don’t have it. Leonardo DiCaprio, that behemoth star of the Titanic, Instagrammed recently on Chennai’s water crisis, illustrating how the city’s wells and reservoirs have run dry; how hotels and establishments have shut down; and how people are parched in desperation. This immediately brought international attention to India’s heat wave and drought; part of a series of wicked weather events worldwide.
It may seem puerile to point out that Chennai was lashed by floods a few years ago, that most of India is covered by monsoon rains, and that we don’t do a good job of storing our water. It may seem ironic that though we are yet to reconcile with the lashings of rain and destruction brought by Cyclones Fani and Vayu, we are now in a heat wave. This has caused deaths and injuries over water, the migration and suicide of farmers, and made taps run dry in the unlikeliest of places.
We all need to come together to save water, and not just as a hashtag, but as a way of life. We can’t depend on the weather, or on once-in-a-year monsoons. We must do our best and prepare for the worst; throughout the year, and throughout our lives.
Here are the things you can do to save and store water.
Change the pipelines to your heart
Water quenches the thirst of every living thing. For that satiating reason alone, it ought to be respected. Water rushes down canals, treatment plants and kilometres to come to our taps through pipelines. I urge you to alter the pipelines to your heart. This is the stuff of life, it requires your attention. Don’t disrespect it.
Don’t use buckets of water to wash your car. Use a wet cloth. Please don’t use water to wash down streets; that water is better saved. In your RO water purification systems, a lot of wastewater is generated. Collect it in a can and use it to mop your floor, or water your plants. Most foliage plants are able to tolerate this water and their growth is unaffected. Collect your AC water and use it for domestic chores. Fix your leaking taps. Report leaking municipal pipes. We don’t want to come to a point where the stuff of life runs dry in those pipes.
The right kind of greens, or vegetation, help in water budgeting. Avoid carpet grass or exotic grasses. Use Indian grass for your lawns. They require less water. You should plant drought tolerant trees and saplings, which not only survive drought phases but also help the water cycle through evapotranspiration. Shrubs in your garden can include the Sada bahar or Vinca and the Adenium, or the desert rose. And plant an Indian tree.
The right kind of vegetation helps in water budgeting (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Banyan, Peepal, Semal, Siris all have the strength to survive the summer and the generosity of large canopies that aid the water cycle.
The earth is parched and brown, and perhaps we think tiles and footpaths are prettier than mud. But we need to stop pouring concrete over everything. There are entire sub-cities that run on groundwater. Gurgaon. Delhi. Faridabad. Noida. Where does this water come from, and is this water, whose origin we don’t see, endless? Perhaps because it is underground, we live a careless life that doesn’t count overheads. We have our hands in the groundwater cookie jar, but that jar isn’t bottomless. We need to replenish what we take — build a relationship that is mutual, not parasitic.
A Nilgai and Cattle egret in the water on a summer day in Sultanpur National Park. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, and levels have dipped so low we can only hope the ground won’t collapse. In order to replenish the water table, we need to build rainwater structures in housing colonies, schools and institutions. Apart from that, we need to let the soil breathe so water can percolate. Parks, forests and roadsides should not be concretised. The Delhi Development Authorities latest idea of concretising ‘outdoor gyms’ in city forests like Sanjay van lacks sense and vision. It also betrays how a quick buck is made through tenders, at the cost of the water table.
Chennai’s shrunken lakes are a warning. We need wetlands in our cities. Wetlands add to open spaces. They often help recharge groundwater. And they store water. Building on top of storm-water channels, wetlands and lakes is a foolish, apocalyptic idea.
A Black-headed Ibis silhouetted against a wetland. These wetlands store water and engender life. Wetlands aren’t waste-lands, and should not be treated as ready spaces for more construction. (Photo: Neha Sinha)
Cutting off streams of water that feeds the wetlands will ensure they dry up. We must stop pretending water will always come to us, at our beckoning. We don’t need more malls. Next time, ask for the restoration of your local wetland instead.
Construction comes at a cost. We all like new buildings, sweeping parking areas and sparkling facades. Construction needs water, and many of our cities and towns are going through construction booms. When the foundation is laid for buildings, the digging may hit a groundwater aquifer. The water is subsequently pumped out. This is known as construction dewatering. This is a criminal waste of water. Instead of digging for basements and dewatering, in such places the buildings should go higher. This should be a municipal norm, but we need to make this meaningful in our daily lives as citizens. We must actively ask for these things.
Catch the rain where it falls. Treat water like your life depends on it. It really does.
This first appeared in my column in DailyO.