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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 Asia’s 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. India’s 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 water—regardless 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 Rome’s 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 society.

If we were to build a water-splurging society like the West, we would eventually run short of water

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Planning for water

February 15, 2000
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