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Unquiet flows your bathwater

Omair Ahmad | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Dip, dip, dip....: A bucket bath uses less than half the water drained by a fiveminute shower. Photo: Vino John

Dip, dip, dip....: A bucket bath uses less than half the water drained by a fiveminute shower. Photo: Vino John

Dip, dip, dip....: A bucket bath uses less than half the water drained by a fiveminute shower

Dip, dip, dip....: A bucket bath uses less than half the water drained by a fiveminute shower

Left poorer: The scramble for groundwater. Photo: K R Deepak

Left poorer: The scramble for groundwater. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

Left poorer: The scramble for groundwater. Photo: K R Deepak

Left poorer: The scramble for groundwater. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

The rich-poor divide in water use

In the late 1990s, when I was doing my master’s in international studies, one of our professors told us, “Take a look at environmental law; that is where the new frontier of international relations will be.” I smiled politely and dismissed the idea. I wanted to study the exciting things –— war, human rights abuses, justice, global conflicts. It has taken me nearly two decades to understand that the path to studying these issues flows with water.

In 2005 I was working with the British High Commission in Delhi when the Foreign Office was getting more interested in water issues. The department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) sent across a list of pointers for us to read through and incorporate into external communications. It did not involve me much — I was looking after Jammu & Kashmir issues, and some external affairs stuff — but a colleague came to me with a question. In the DEFRA list was the statement “Consider using a shower to bathe to save water.”





It took a while for us to figure out that the circular had left out the words “instead of a bathtub”. To us, a bucket bath was using about 20 litres of water. An average shower of five minutes, with a normal flow rate of about 10 litres per minute (low-flow shower heads can bring this down to seven litres per minute), would use two-and-a-half times more water, while bathtubs involved a minimum of about 100 litres. My colleague and I laughed, I guess I must have shot off a quick email to London, and then we forgot about it. It is, however, an example that comes to my mind time and again. What we consider luxury in developing countries is often considered economising or sacrificing in developed ones.

At the heart of the great debates on global governance, of the nitty-gritty of the many documents signed and agreed to, lies this very simple reality: the way we consume water — even in as personal a matter as bathing — will have to change. For many developed countries, this is the fear — that the life they have taken for granted as “normal”, will become accessible only to the rich.

It does not have to be all downhill, though. I made my first trip to Bhutan in December 2007, to research a book that came out of my primary interest in how that country and India managed such good relations over water. Bhutan is a country of seven mountain valleys, and it gets pretty cold in December. I took a bath, in a bathtub, without guilt. Over the past few decades, Bhutan’s steady economic growth has been driven by large, run-of-the-river hydropower projects (built with India’s aid and grants), and it was that generated electricity that heated my bathwater. These hydropower projects are not without problems, but they are one of the reasons why during the 2015 climate change conference in Paris, Bhutan was lauded for making the most ambitious climate pledge among all the countries.

Hydropower projects in India, though, have had less positive results. Crumbling mountainsides in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and displacement of people in the North-East have had a massive impact on already marginalised communities, while those of us in urban places such as Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai or Kolkata enjoy the benefits of electricity. The water that is available to the rich in our country (and the energy derived from it) is very different from what is available to the poor. For example, we set great store by the Swachh Bharat campaign and the building of toilets, but the question nobody asks is, ‘Where’s the water to flush these toilets?’ And if such water was available, wouldn’t it be used in the fields to grow crops?

More than three-quarters of the water used in India currently goes to grow crops, and yet farmers are starving, committing suicide in their thousands. Much of this has to do with the fact that the only crops for which there is a steady market are wheat and paddy, and these, since the Green Revolution, involve using lots of water and fertiliser. It enabled us to grow our own food, but has also led to declining groundwater levels and large populations left at the mercy of market fluctuations.

From justice internationally to growth and redressal of poverty internally, if there is one thing that matters today, it is water — something the rich can afford to ignore, but without which the poor suffer and die. Isn’t it time we paid attention?

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Polereporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Published on December 30, 2016
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