Planning for Water
Compare Southeast Asia with South Asia. The land area of Southeast
Asia is 435 million hectares (mha). In South Asia, India is 327 mha
and all other countries included would probably add up to the land
area of Southeast Asia or a little less. The total population of Southeast
Asia at the end of the century is more than 550 million. South Asias
population is more than double that figure. The climate of Southeast
Asia is generally humid and average annual rainfall of most countries
varies from 1,600 mm to 3,000 mm. Indias average annual rainfall
is around 1,100 mm and that of South Asia should be about the same.
In other words, Southeast Asia has twice the amount of rainfall compared
to South Asia and half the population.
If, by any trick or miracle, South Asia could
halve its population and double its rainfall, by any conventional
thinking it would be an occasion for a great celebration. But hold
it. Southeast Asia has several water-related problems. Many of its
urban slums and villages are as thirsty for water as those in South
Asia. In many places, the groundwater is getting depleted. And,
of course, with richer people and higher economic growth rates,
water is getting severely polluted. So what is it doing with all
the water it has?
Listening to leading water experts from Southeast
Asia discussing their future vision and strategy for water management
recently in Manila, I was immediately reminded of the difference
between Jaisalmer, a desert town, and the village of Cherrapunji.
The first gets a few hundred millimetres (mm) of rainfall every
year and yet has been able to meet its water requirements for centuries
besides establishing a well developed agricultural system. The people
of Jaisalmer have understood the importance of rainfall. Cherrapunji,
on the other hand, has always had such an abundance of rainfall.
With an annual average of nearly 15,000 mm, it never felt the need
to appreciate the importance of rainfall. But water being as fluid
as it is, just comes and goes.
As long as there was a forest it would capture
some of the rain and feed springs and small rivulets round the year.
There was no need to think of rainwater harvesting. But with the
forests gone, Cherrapunji faces a serious water shortage after the
monsoon. Now some agencies working in Cherrapunji are building structures
of a kind that Rajasthanis have built for centuries.
What is the lesson in all this? That if anybody
claims an area has low rainfall and, therefore, water needs to be
imported to the region, you can rest assured that somebody is out
to make money using the low rainfall as an excuse. If a society
has a good relationship with its water, respects it, knows how to
store it, and does not pollute it, there cannot be a shortage of
water even in a low rainfall area.
Of course, if we were to encourage a water-splurging
and a highly water-polluting society like that of the West, we,
too, will run short of waterregardless of how much we have.
We were not surprised that there was no mention of the importance
of rainwater harvesting at the Manila conference. Living in one
of the water-rich areas of the world why would they think of paradigms
that have emerged in water-scarce areas?
The 21st century will see a reversal of many
mindsets that have dominated the water sector in the previous century
because it is going to get scarcer and scarcer, considering the
mindlessness with which we have rushed to adopt Western paradigms.
The way in which our so-called highly prestigious
Indian Institutes of Technology and the Roorkee University have
only taught the Western models makes me feel that they were keen
to make our engineers more the children of that arch-colonialist
Lord Macaulay, who wanted all of us to be like the British, instead
of making our engineers the children of Gandhi. And it is not just
our brown Asian tinkerers who think Western, unfortunately, the
whole developing world is madly in love with the highly destructive
practices of the West. Getting rid of colonised minds is far more
difficult than getting rid of the colonisers themselves.
A fascinating piece about culture and water
was published recently in a Japanese magazine. It compared Roma
(Rome) with Edo (the city out of which grew Tokyo). Very unlike
the highly courteous Japanese, the article mocked ancient Romes
water supply system. Romans used to build huge aquaducts that ran
for tens of miles to bring water to their settlements.
These aquaducts represent the utter stupidity
of the Romans. Rome was built on the river Tiber. The city did not
need an aquaduct. But the Romans polluted the river and then had
to bring water from far-off places. As a result, water outlets were
few, and the elite swiped off most of it using a system of slaves.
On the contrary, traditional Japanese
never threw their muck into a river. They would use a dry bin for
human excreta and then use it on the fields. As a result, Edo had
numerous water outlets and a much more egalitarian water supply
even though the Japanese society was just as inegalitarian as Roman
we were to build a water-splurging society like the West,
we would eventually run short of water