Without water, no person can function, and thus without the clouds and rain, order cannot be maintained’.
Mridula Ramesh’s compelling work traces the trajectory of India’s water over 4000 years to highlight the grave crisis India is facing today. Global warming is a tragic reality and it is being predicted that by 2030 India will fail to meet half its water demand. As the book’s blurb points out, water availability per person in India has been decreasing for decades, leaving parts of the country in a cruel ‘Day Zero’ situation, shuttering factories and pushing farmers over the brink. As the climate heats up, it is likely that swathes of land will be submerged, water-related extremes will reshape industry and famine will revisit the country. Ramesh portrays India’s past and present as she proclaims that ancient engineering or traditional technologies functioned keeping in mind the facets of India’s volatile water. However, their ingenuity often failed to battle against monsoon variability and over-exploitation of water resources, which during the past had either led to the collapse of civilizations like the Indus Valley Civilization or flooded the capital of powerful dynasties like Maurya’s Pataliputra.
The book is categorized in two broad sections, ‘Understanding’ and ‘Action’, describing how India’s relationship with water has become dysfunctional and what corrective measures are the need of the hour to rectify the burgeoning water crisis in India. It begins by explaining the fault lines and stressors of India’s water resources. Emphasizing the science of water and India’s monsoon uniqueness, it is significant to understand how India should manage its water differently—having a tremendously variable rainfall across States ranging from the areas like the Konkan coast, which receives an avalanche of rainfall compared to the areas of the North-West where a single drop of water counts. Ramesh states that the insistence on growing commercial crops out of the region’s water endowment, disrespecting monsoon variability and inter-annual variations in rainfall, have created one of India’s first water fault lines. Further, anthropocentric activities like the decimation of forests and sand mining in rivers depleting groundwater and rivers to gratify incessant human needs have altered the seasonality and geographical variations and resulted in a warmer world and snowmelt, thus, creating an additional fault line to India’s water crunch. The unaddressed stressors such as climate change and the demography’s rising demand have further aggravated these problems.
Since Independence, water management has been often ignored at the public policy level. Ramesh quotes American climate activist Bill McKibben: ‘water doesn’t negotiate’ (p. 39), to portray India’s persistently weakening traditional and natural mechanisms that can help even out India’s water crisis. The chapter ‘Chinks in India’s Water Armour’ elucidates that India’s low and falling storage results from policy failures and unplanned engineering, often ignoring the facets of India’s water, is one of the first rungs on the ladder of provisions gone wrong.