Rivers were once sacred; myths spouted from their waters, rituals from birth to death were woven in their fabric, and the promise of convenient irrigation and abundant life teeming in its body became the reason for people settling down on its banks. This relationship has undergone a change: today, a river is viewed as little more than a ‘resource’ and in many cases, a dumping ground for industries along its banks.
What are we doing to our rivers, symbolic of fresh water and swarming life?
Fred Pearce, an award-winning British environmentalist and journalist, who specializes in global environmental issues, including water and climate change, travels to 30 countries to explore the water crisis and pieces together a narrative of the state of the world’s rivers in a 368-page book called ‘When Our Rivers Run Dry’.
The book, narrated through Pearce’s personal journeys and interviews, is a good introduction to the world’s hydrology. Every case study highlights the impact of different water-related issues - insatiable consumerism, world trade, ‘virtual water’, politics, and even economic schemes designed to take the rivers where the money flows. He argues that industrialization is primarily responsible for draining our rivers of all their water.
He narrates how millions of cubic feet of water are diverted to irrigate rice-growing fields in Pakistan; in Libya fossil water – radiocarbon-dated to 20,000 years old – is being pumped out from beneath the desert’s Nubian aquifers that won’t be replenished; borewells in India and Bangladesh are sinking deeper in search of water. The borewells also have more-than-permissible limits of arsenic in their waters, resulting in stunted growth and deformed bones among the populations that depend on it.
Pearce also goes in-depth into a well-known water crisis like that of the Aral Sea, often referred to by the UN as the ‘worst environmental disaster of the 21st century,’ to get a sense of what went wrong, of how an inland sea is today an expanding desert with two hypersaline pools and no life for miles. While most atlases still depict the Aral, as Pearce puts it, as a ‘single chunk of blue’, satellite images show an ever-shrinking water-body. In the 20th century, Soviet engineers diverted waters of the two rivers that replenished this ‘bustling fishing port’ to irrigate cotton fields planted in the desert. The project had been quite controversial even back in 1938 when the prime minister of Uzbekistan had complained that people ‘could not eat cotton’ and was subsequently executed.
Pearce also criticizes the dogma that prevails in Western education that teaches the world’s engineers, irrespective of their geographical and seasonal realities, that floods are ‘bad’. He narrates the example of the Tonle Sap, a river in Cambodia, which empties into the serpentine Mekong stretching through 2800 miles of South-East Asia. The dynamiting and the super-size dams built upstream as far as China are interfering with a unique phenomenon of the river – its surge upstream. This seasonal reverse flow of the Tonle Sap during the monsoons empties into a lake that in turn spills its banks and floods a rainforest. For five months, ‘the fish that grow in profusion in the silty forest waters will be washed into the main river as the monsoon abates and the river resumes its flow,’ feeding close to ten million people along the Mekong River. This flood-forest, which is a living, thriving ecosystem, nourishes the soil and its people. It makes one cringe to think of how our species is largely and deliberately responsible for interfering with a natural phenomenon that has probably taken place for centuries.
In a chapter on the commons, Pearce vividly describes the fens of England, the swamps of Sudan and the wetlands of Chad – some of the biologically richest parts of the world before human intervention – and what we stand to lose if they are destroyed. For the skeptic who might dismiss these as environmental bunkum, Pearce cites a 2003 economic assessment of the Panatal in Paraguay in South America, the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world – its value was pegged at a staggering $16 billion a year, for its regulation of water, and diversity of animals, birds and other species.
An apocalyptic theme is balanced by Pearce by the story-telling that is passionate without being superfluous, and has plenty of ‘visual’ facts and data. It is clear that merely reducing our consumption of our water in our homes, though important, will not do much to protect rivers.
He insists it is essential to recharge what we’re taking away – either through creating ponds like the ones built in Rajsamadhiya in dry Gujarat, which ensure year-round water supply to its villagers, or protecting hillside channels like in Jordan that harvest rainwater and replenish the groundwater. In Iran, qanats, networks of horizontal stone tunnels extend into hillsides capturing the water that percolates through the rocks. Created three thousand years ago, during the age of the Persian Empire, qanats still form the crux of the water supply. It is through such native wisdom, he says, we have a chance to reinvent our current models of water-use.
Despite the book’s exhaustive coverage, there is still a sense of incompleteness. Pearce does not make a strong case for the intrinsic worth of a river, its value for its own sake. His arguments for rivers’ protection and survival remain limited to the survival of the human species and all that it needs
My own acquaintance with a river deepened one monsoon when I watched the Tungabhadra, a normally sluggish red-streaked river, revive to a roar during the monsoons at Hampi. At the heart of the ruins of the once-flourishing Vijayanagara Empire, small stone temples and structures along its banks, visible only a few hours earlier, lay deep beneath the surge; a diesel-powered motorboat groaned and barely made it across from the bank of an island to the mainland – a reminder that everything is fragile in the path of such flow. Diverted into numerous canals along its 531 km stretch, it is the lifeline for farmers along its banks. The history of a mighty empire is easy to imagine here.
Unfortunately, even the Tungabhadra, once revered as the Pampa of the Ramayana, has become a sump for the numerous effluent-churning towns. To protect and understand the Tunghabhadra or any other river, not just the most mighty, lengthiest or deepest, a deep ecology world-view that values this intrinsic worth is essential – to encourage a deeper philosophy that recognizes the right of the whole living environment
The closest Pearce comes to moving beyond anthropocentric concerns is when he acknowledges, towards the end, that the role of a river is more than just being a source of water. But he doesn’t detail how that shift in perception could come about.
Pearce does rally for a different kind of ethos, an ethos that works with Nature instead of against it, arguing that despite a river’s sanctity, they now need new myths that recognize that they are not permanent after all; that without our protection, conservation, efficient management and equitable sharing, even Nature’s natural cycles will not keep the rivers and their flora, fauna, forests and plains from running dry.