27 March, 2009

Waiting for rain

Sushma Joshi
In about forty years time, the monsoon may be the only source of water for much of the Indian subcontinent's one billion plus people

“Are you eating meat again?” says my nephew to me disapprovingly each time he sees me eating fish or chicken. “Don't do that. You'll get bird flu.” My nephew is five years old. He is brought up by parents who are both vegetarians. His mother is pretty cool about childrearing -- she decided that he should make his own choice about meat or no meat, and that forcing children to follow a certain path would certainly lead to them doing the exact opposite. So the upshot is that besides a few brief episodes of rebellion when my nephew was in his terrible twos, when he stuffed his face with chicken at wedding feasts and embarrassed his parents, he seems to have accepted, voluntarily, the lifestyle of a committed vegetarian.

After opening a FAO website in which they talk about how many liters of water is needed to produce one hamburger (2400 liters, as opposed to 25 liters for one potato), I realised maybe my nephew may know more than I do. Sometime in the past, I had lived in an environmentally sensitive co-operative house during college in the USA. The people who lived there were religious about not eating meat, and some so were extreme they would even make their own vegan chewing gum. So for a few years I was an enforced vegetarian, coming to learn that a vegetarian had less of an impact upon this fragile earth. Cattle require more water than plants to grow. For a few years, I was not only healthier but had a lighter footprint upon the earth.

This winter, Kathmandu, besides its usual shortage of drinking water, had zero rainfall over four months. That winter rain was crucial to plant winter crops. Without rain, how will the farmers grow their wheat and barley? Friends of mine disagree with me about my perception of global warming. I'm being overanxious and overly dramatic, they think. When I say that we may have to move to agriculture that requires less water, they accuse me of being bourgeois and restricting water access to the poorest of the poor. But even the bourgeoisie have no control over rainfall and cannot really turn rain on and off like KUKL -- and without rainfall, how can the farmers grow water intensive crops?

Our collective longing for rain the past few weeks was evident. Facebook was full of profile messages of people longing for and waiting for rain. We knew the planet was warming but we didn't know it would hit us this fast.

Scientists have already predicted that the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which act as fridges to keep water frozen till the spring, will impact river flows during springtime. In about forty years time, the monsoon may be the only source of water for much of the Indian subcontinent's one billion plus people. The dramas of those predictions are already coming true for many people who depend on rivers and rainfall to irrigate their crops.

For diehard traditionalists, the lack of water has provided the perfect platform to prove their own theories. During a recent conversation, one man told me that three factors -- the collapse of the Machindranath chariot, the enraged Indra Jatra committee who turned the Kumari chariot in the counterclockwise direction, and the nine days of missed pooja at Pashupatinath were all responsible for the dry winter we've had so far. Therefore, he opined, we really need the monarchy back. Not only that, he said, but the lack of basic necessities like water and electricity was something that people couldn't do without, but freedom of speech and the media could be dispensed with. So therefore, he said, he was willing to take his pick of an autocracy which provided basic necessities over freedom of speech, and he challenged me to prove that people wouldn't make this choice. Also, he said, without guarantee of private property rights and a stable middle class, democracy couldn't really flourish. Benin has democracy but Singapore doesn't, but which country would you pick to live in, he challenged me.

I really had no answer to all this except to say that basic necessities and freedom of speech were not mutually exclusive or opposing categories, and could co-exist together. But his point, of course, is well taken. As environmental conditions get more extreme and people start to face more and more shortages of basic needs, how will this affect our political landscape? Will we move towards a more autocratic regime that may be able to guarantee at least some modicum of basic needs like water and electricity? And if so, how can we guarantee that the present urgent need to institute a democratic system goes hand in hand with leaders who recognize the need for, and are capable of delivering on, basic services?

But the government is not the only one we can turn to as we face the challenge of a hotter planet. As the planet warms, we as citizens of democratic countries must think more and more about what we can do about water shortage, and our own responsibilities and obligations to a broader world.

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental groups working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as climate change, writes in the Harvard Business blog that many key water intensive industries, including “technology, beverage, food, electric power/energy, apparel biotechnology/pharmaceuticals, forest products and mining,” will be affected by water shortages. She recommends that companies start to measure their water footprint, and to elevate water as a governance priority for executives and board members.

Companies, like households, can do a lot to minimize their water footprints. In particular, it may be time for us to start selling those Pajeros and putting the money back into water harvesting tanks which store rainwater from the monsoon for the dry winter months. Hotels, schools and other businesses that use water intensively should, by regulation, have to have a water harvesting tank built for their own water needs. I'm sure all the apartment buildings of Kathmandu will protest when their budget for elegant Italian bathroom tiles goes down but maybe they don't really want elegant Italian tiled bathrooms with no water, do they? Perhaps in the long run the tank may make sense.

As for my nephew, he's already designed a house that has six solar panels (one for computer, one for lights, one for water pump, one for tv, and one for hot water), a natural gas mechanism that lights the cooking stove, a solar car which runs on solar batteries, a windmill to generate electricity, a scarecrow to scare away naughty crows, and a fan to keep away ghosts. Oh, I forgot to mention the scary mask for keeping away big bad ghosts. Needless to say, the last three are his favorites.

“Do you know that by the time you are my age, there will be no more petrol and much less water?” I ask him. “I know!” he answers, jumping up and down at his ecologically sound model. If a five year old can understand this, how come we have so much trouble?

Posted on: 2009-03-27 19:58:01 (Server Time)


rajankathet said...

Hello Maam! My name is Rajan Kathet. I'm from Kathmandu University. I am a regular reader of the "The Global and the Local" column. Of all the article i have read, this one "waiting for the rain" was too much convincing and indeed an especial urge to all those stupid Nepalese. I had also commented on this article on The Letters to the Editor. Alternative Energy Hope to read more and more inspiring articles.

Jill said...

Your article today on Federalism was excellent. It was insightful (as usual), and I definitely learned a few things. I just added your blog address to my list of favorites on my blog, so folks from home can get a thoughtful view on life in Nepal, hope you don't mind. It was really nice to meet you at Park Village (at the pool) on Nepali New Years . . . thanks again for the wonderful writing.