‘WHEN TAPS RUN DRY: CHENNAI’S WATER CRISIS’. I stared at the news article printed in the Deccan Herald. The statistics mentioned in the article about the depleting water tables, increasing depth of the water bore wells being dug up and the increasing volume of water being imported into the city spoke about the gravity of the situation. Yet there was something that this article failed to communicate to us.
My understanding of the relationship between humans and water was limited to the knowledge that I gained from such news articles and my science textbooks from school. They had always shown me a very unilateral way of looking at water. A molecule of H2O that is colorless, odorless and tasteless. I started to perceive water as an entity separate from me, an entity that was definitely important yet not something that I was inherently related to in any manner.
Nature-society dialects is one of the most intriguing topics that I have come across while studying environmental science. A topic that astounded me more and more as I read into it. It explained to me how the nature of the relationship between man and environment has never been constant but shaped through historical, social and political transformations over time; that it is not something that occurred naturally but something that is constructed by us. The importance of how we view nature reflects not only in our understanding of it but also on how we act towards it. In this paper, I will talk about the multilayered interconnection between humans and water. I will do so by laying down how a non-binary vision has led us to exploit water, which can be corrected only if we start to perceive it differently.
For decades now, we have been presented with the hydrological water cycle. It accounts for the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of earth talking about the processes such as evaporation and solidification that allow water to change its form. This very notion of water separates it from human values, behavior and organization. The hydro-social cycle on the other hand recognizes the mutual constitution of the social as well as the materialistic roles. This cycle has been defined as “a socio-natural process by which water and society make and remake each other.” (Budds and Linton, 2014). This form of description becomes inclusive and leaves no scope for overlooking those relationships that are not shaped by the hegemonic powers and often reduced to being unimportant. It broadens the perspective to indigenous and non-scientific relations that only conform to the strength of the hydrosocial cycle as a diverse and complex space (Budds and Linton, 2014). This was when I realized how essential were the rituals that the Hindus performed in the waters of river Ganga in the formation of the knowledge of water – for the knowledge of water expands way beyond the scientific expression of H2O.
Jamie Linton in his book ‘What is Water’ has termed this intellectual abstraction of water as Modern Water. He states how modern water stands unique in its consideration of all waters, being different based on their social and ecological relation rather than one whole abstract quantity. He also mentions the role of the hegemonic powers in manipulating the discourse surrounding water. With politics surrounding every action, the effect and relation between society and water can vary depending on your region, religion and economic background. You can describe the frequency of water’s values differently based on the above. For instance, the construction of dams as modern systems of managing water only showcases the cubic meters that fall through the turbines in order to generate hydroelectricity. They are used as symbols of scientific physical solutions to the water problems, keeping aside the social and environmental threats they pose. Today, dams have been estimated to have replaced about 40-80 million people.
It had never occurred to me when and why water became a commodity. The bottled water industry manufactured demand for their water in order to reap profits. They advertised tap water to be a source of unclean water to promote their branded water when in fact the water packaged in these bottles too comes from the very same sources such as ground, surface or spring water – in some cases with slightly added minerals to them. At times marketing strategies do not limit themselves to the notion of ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’ but stretch as far as denoting water as a symbol of status (Doria, 2006). Apparently the water quality from the tap water at the Indian railway station is no different from the bottled water available there. Yet due to the rising awareness of water borne diseases, consumers have completely lost their faith in tap water. The irony lies in how the packaging of bottled water solely aims at connecting the user to nature. They usually depict images of mountains with a stream of water running from between with words such as ‘fresh’, ‘pure’ water with ‘no additives’ (Opel, 69). This reflecst upon the depth of the roots of privatization. The system created by the commodification of water is so strong that people have stopped questioning it. They take in what they are fed without stopping to wonder about the social and the environmental cost of such mechanisms; bottled water is not only one of the largest contributors to the production of plastic but has also led to several social issues such as displacement of people from the villages where the production plants have been set up.
India, a country that was known for having plentiful monsoons is now on the verge of drying up. It is predicted that 21 cities would run out of groundwater by 2020. A NITI Aayog report suggests an urgent and improved management of water resources (Dhillon, 2019). The situation is so grave that even if they do come up with ‘these urgent policies’, the number of existing water bodies where they could be implemented are decreasing rapidly. Most of the researchers blame the water crisis on inefficient recycling of water and unplanned urban development. Once again we have turned towards the physical solutions ignoring the innate relationship that a society shares with water. I nowhere claim to say that physical scientific solutions will never be able to solve the water crisis but for individuals to act upon the water crisis despite the urban infrastructure would be possible only if they relate to it. The formation of the ministry, Jal Shakti, too has faced backlash by the media for their holistic approach to the situation by aiming to install piped water connections in every household. “This indicates that there is a clear disconnect between water, society and economy. Currently we are interested in laying large networks…. which involves a huge carbon footprint. We are valuing land more than water.” (Matto, 2019). Another impact of the water crisis brings me back to the argument of how water means and affects different people differently. The shortage of water in Chennai has resulted in an increase in the water prices by the private bottled water companies. While the middle class can manage to pay the inflated price being charged by these water tanker companies, this option is not available to the poor (Dhillon, 2019).
The crisis is here and we have to act now. It is necessary for the government to think beyond the scientific notion and problems and allow the the public to connect to water in its most essential form. Upgrading the view of water in the education system would be a commendable start, for it would put aside the image of water created by the hegemonic powers and introduce water to the society as something that exists along with them and not separate from them. Through this implementing integrated urban development too would become easy as societies would now view water differently.
Budds, Jessica, and Jamie Linton. “The Hydrosocial Cycle.” Geoforum, vol. 57, 2014, pp. 167–169., doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.08.003.
Dhillon, Amrit. “Chennai in Crisis as Authorities Blamed for Dire Water Shortage.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 June 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/19/chennai-in-crisis-water-shortage-with-authorities-blamed-india.
Linton, Jamie. What Is Water? the History of a Modern Abstraction. UBC Press, 2010.
Mattoo, Mahreen. “India’s Water Crisis: The Clock Is Ticking.” Down To Earth, 1 July 2019, http://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/water/india-s-water-crisis-the-clock-is-ticking-65217.
Opel, Andy. “Constructing Purity: Bottled Water and the Commodification of Nature.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 22, no. 4, 1999, pp. 67–76., doi:10.1111/j.1542-734x.1999.2204_67.x.
Vanshika Mittal is an undergraduate student of Ashoka University pursuing Economics and Environmental Sciences.