‘Our water is variable and volatile’

Mridula Ramesh  is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, which focuses on water and waste solutions, and author of The Climate Solution and the recently released Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It. She is also a prolific angel investor and, far from least, executive director of Sundaram Textiles.

Ms Ramesh, who studied and worked in the United States before returning to India — she lives in Madurai with her husband and two children — speaks to Labonita Ghosh about the water crisis confronting the country, rejuvenating traditional water bodies and about co-opting sewage treatment. Excerpts from the interview:

India has, historically, been water-abundant but today we are facing a water scarcity. How did we get to this point?

I wouldn’t say abundant but we’ve been somewhat water secure. India sees an enormous variability in water availability. Jaisalmer in Rajasthan survives on 165mm of rain a year while Sikkim and the Northeast receive plenty of rainfall in a matter of months. Why have we become water-insecure? There are several reasons. First, there is water insecurity in farms caused by the change in cropping patterns and population increase.

In the 1880s, we were a nation of some 200 million people eating mostly millets. Today we are over 1.3 billion, eating largely rice and wheat. Millets are hardy crops that can survive the volatility of India’s water. Farmers in ancient India understood that and grew it. However, the British, blind to the volatility, imposed a fixed cash tax on India’s farmers, who began to increasingly turn to water-hungry crops like rice and wheat.

Historically, Indian farmers have always paid a variable crop tax. They would pay more when there was a bounty and less during a drought. After the British introduced the fixed cash tax, farmers realised they needed to grow crops that fetched more money and switched to rice and wheat, as well as sugarcane and indigo, which were in great demand then in the international market.

[Delhi] used to have more than a thousand water bodies; many of them have either been encroached upon or are in terrible shape.”

Post Independence, and after the green revolution, rice and wheat were cultivated in the driest parts of the country, Punjab and Haryana, for example. This makes no sense. Rice requires about 1,240mm of rainfall but Punjab receives only between 400 and 600mm. This gap is bridged by drawing groundwater, and these groundwater reserves are beginning to empty out. State-level reports from 2019 estimate that Punjab may run out of groundwater in 20-25 years.

Besides changing our cropping patterns, the British also cut down our forests. Places like Sikkim and the Northeast have steep, almost vertical slopes. The forests there not only hold the soil in place, it slows down water runoff after the rains and stores it in the ground. But now, in areas where forests have been cleared, flash floods and landslides have become more commonplace. We’ve destabilised our water systems by growing crops that have no business being grown in certain regions and by clearing our forests.

Everyone talks about climate change in terms of carbon, but not in terms of water. In India, climate change accentuates water contrasts. It makes dry regions and dry seasons drier and wet regions and seasons wetter. That’s the worst thing to happen to our already variable water.

Teppakulam is a square tank spread over 16 acres in Madurai; many Indian cities have failed to protect similar water bodies

What about our cities?

Besides geographic variability, India’s water is also highly seasonal. A World Resources Institute study found that we have one of the most seasonal rains in the world, and this is also temporally skewed. Most of our cities get between 40 and 50 rain days a year (more in places like Mumbai). If you have seasonal rainfall, you need place to store it to cater to the everyday water needs of cities. But we are destroying what little water storage we have.

Historically, people understood the need for this, which is why many cities created lakes to store water in a distributed fashion, and these were managed by local communities. But the British wanted a centrally controlled supply of water; they didn’t like these community-controlled lakes and tanks.

Health inspector reports from Madras or Bombay of that time insisted that these tanks were breeding mosquitoes, polluting the air and such. The British opted for piped water and filled up many of the existing tanks. In the bargain, they got prime land in the heart of cities.

In T Nagar, one of Chennai’s biggest and most affluent neighbourhoods, there was an enormous lake up until 1920 (the Chennai Boat Club used to hold its winter regatta there). This was filled up and turned into real estate. Now the neighbourhood floods after heavy rains. It’s bound to, since this low-lying area was once a lake designed to collect water.

It’s the same with hundreds of water bodies all over India. We have forgotten that our water is this special, variable and volatile being, and we are paying the price for it.

At Sundaram Climate Institute, we have done an extensive study on tanks and found that if you live in the periphery of a ‘functional’ tank, your groundwater levels tend to be about 200ft higher than if you don’t. We spoke to 2,000-odd households in Madurai and found that 40% of them buy water, spending 400 per month on average. This drops by 100 if you live next to a functional tank.

What is a ‘functional’ tank?

Tanks (or lakes) build water security by collecting the seasonal and temporally skewed rains and by recharging the groundwater. During heavy rains they are a place for water to collect to avoid flooding. A functional tank is one that does all these things.

What helps it do its job well? Our studies found three factors. Many lakes and tanks in India are cascading systems of water fed by a common stream; the excess water flows from one into another. The inlet through which it flows must not be clogged with garbage or disrupted in any fashion, like by putting a playground or a parking lot over it. If the inlet is clogged or encroached upon, the downstream tank gets starved of water.

The second point is about how many months these tanks hold water. The third, and most important, is that no matter the size of the lake or tank, does it have deep links with the local community? We found that tiny tanks in crowded areas remained functional if the community valued them. The locals treated the water as sacred.

Such tanks are kept in pristine condition because the community finds great value (even spiritual value) in it. It may be a source of cash, too, with fishing or water for animal husbandry. Since incomes from these tanks flow back to the community, the locals go all out to protect them.

With tanks being managed by government departments, the community doesn’t benefit anymore. Fishing doesn’t take place (or happens surreptitiously) so the benefit doesn’t go to the community. And tanks and lakes located in places with high land value are covered up (like in T Nagar).

In my book Watershed, I’ve talked about how tanks can be rejuvenated. Once a tank is functional again, it starts recharging groundwater. Delhi, for example, is reeling from a groundwater crisis. It used to have more than a thousand water bodies; many of them have either been encroached upon or are in terrible shape. Imagine how much more water-secure Delhi could become if those water bodies are revived.

You also mention in your book that because water is seen as a free resource we tend to denigrate it. How can we change this attitude?

I wouldn’t say denigrate, but we don’t manage it correctly because we feel it’s free. And that is sad because India’s water resources are crying out to be better managed. The question is: how do we get people to do this?

First — and this harks back to colonial times — we think of water as something to be managed by the government, and through policy. That’s unlikely to work. The moment you think of water as your problem, you will solve it. That’s what happened with my family. We ran out of water at our home in Madurai in 2013. Since nobody was coming to help, we figured out a solution ourselves.

It’s only when we started paying for water that it became visible. Until then we had no clue how or where we were using it, or why we had run out of it. We managed to fix our water scarcity by 2015 and in 2017, when Madurai experienced its worst drought in 140 years, we were the only household there with no need to buy water. We felt water was our responsibility and we managed it.

Second, the change in philosophy needs to come through a mass movement, not just by demanding government policies and action. We’ve been looking to the government for a solution for long; it’s time to try something different now.

In the same way, how do we get farmers to cultivate water-appropriate crops?

If you want farmers to change their crop, you will have to create a demand. People are talking about millets now and that frightens me, because millets don’t have the kind of yield required and many millets have a higher water footprint than even paddy. The trick is to engineer millets to deliver higher yields without sacrificing their climate and water resilience.

I invest in climate tech startups and one of them works with farmers in Punjab to manage their water resources better and increase their yield. They have offered to facilitate a ‘sustainability tag’ for the paddy the farmers grow. When this paddy is exported with this tag, it will fetch more money.

How can we harness technology to solve our water problems?

Technology is not the bottleneck; we have everything technologically required to solve our water problems. But as long as there is no incentive to conserve water, it will not happen. Technology is the cart. You need to put the horse — the incentives — before it.

All this technology comes for a ridiculously small amount of money. We use things like float walls to prevent overflows. We use drip irrigation in the farms, and we also have someone monitoring the lines to check for leaks.

My favourite is sewage treatment. Done right, it’s like having the Brahmastra [the supernatural weapon from Indian mythology] in our back pocket, the perfect vaccination for India’s water volatility. Sewage is not seasonal; it’s available every day.

If you ask me to bet on one technology, I’d go with the system of cascading tanks, which is an ancient form of technology that we have. Alongside sewage treatment, it’s entirely suited to manage India’s water.

Money is not a bottleneck either, to build water resilience. You have hundreds of thousands of crores being spent on water in India and that’s mainly on borewells and tankers. If that money was poured into decentralised sewage treatment or analytic sensors, we could be more water secure. I think the bottleneck is incentives.

What remedial measures would you suggest to protect our water?

First, we have to think of water as our collective problem, not wait for policy or government action to solve it. It must also be decentralised. Second, adopt the nearest lake. You are its community; the moment you and others in the neighbourhood behave that way, you can make it healthy again. Third, treat and reuse your sewage. You don’t have to use it for drinking water but you can use it to flush your toilets or in the garden.

Images courtesy: Sundaram Climate Institute

Ms Ramesh, seen at a water treatment facility, says we have all the technology needed to solve our water problems