27 July, 2019

Drought and Flood

Diagram sourced from this website at ResearchGate:

Full article: Traditional Knowledge of Rainwater Harvesting Compared to Five Modern Case Studies
My article "Drought and Flood" was published in the Annapurna Express on July 27, 2019. Read it below.
South Asia goes through periodic droughts and floods in the same year. Why hasn’t it occurred to us that this is a paradox? How can a continent reeling from water shortage suddenly be inundated with an overabundance of rain, which leads to annual floods? Often, this phenomena is happening in contiguous areas only a few kilometers apart.

I was consulting for the World Bank between 2008-2010, and I remember the then director of World Bank in Nepal, Susan Goldmark, saying that South Asia would never get out of this drought and flood cycle till it managed its monsoon—storing high volumes of rainwater in the high season, withdrawing during the low season. This bit of common sense came to me as a shock when I first heard it. I think about that moment and wonder if we’ve always taken these “natural calamities” for granted, as acts of god and nature which we cannot change. But as Goldmark pointed out, it may just be an issue of policy and management which will end this cycle.

Our ancestors were brilliant and much more technically savvy than us in harvesting rainwater. The dhungay-dhara technology, a Newari invention, stores water in underground channels and withdraws it year around. It is a marvel whose workings were hidden by those who made it so that enemies could not locate its source and disable the water system when attacking a city. Perhaps it is because of this that the system fell into disuse, because only a few were privy to its workings. There’s a channel to recharge underground reservoirs, and a system to filter the water as it goes down.

Anybody who’s dealt with today’s pumps, electric motors and ozone filters, which frequently go bust and need constant repair and electricity, can’t but admire this technology that operates seamlessly. In the last year, I have invested Rs 80,000 ($800) in an underground pump, Rs 30,000 ($300) in a filter, and Rs 24,000 ($240) in an ozone filter for my kitchen. They all work sporadically and need constant repair. The ozone filter requires a Rs 3,500 filter change every six months. I changed it two months ago and the last few days I haven’t had any water coming out. I have reverted to my older filter with a ceramic candle in order to get a few liters of clean water.

No wonder it’s much easier to go out and buy a plastic canister, which will last for a while and comes with a guarantee of purity and freshness. The gentleman in charge of bringing water to the Kathmandu Valley, Surya Raj Kandel, is now engaged in the bottled water business. Kandel is the Executive Director of Melamchi Water Supply Project, and a majority shareholder at Crystal Aqua Service Private Limited. In any country, this is a flagrant violation of ethics and conflict of interest. In Nepal, nobody blinks, probably because the gentleman in question is part of the ruling party, and his wife is the registered owner.

All throughout the monsoon, as the rain fell incessantly, I could hear the roar of diesel jeeps parking outside my house, full of plastic water tanks. This fossil fueled absurdity makes no sense, especially when clean water fell without pause from the sky.
To imagine a city of 1.3 million (with some estimating that the Lalitpur and Bhaktapur districts have an additional four million residents) will get their water through diesel tankers is not just stupid, but also criminal in the age of climate change. I don’t know if UNFCCC has anything to say about that, but they should put out an advisory to Third World countries like Nepal which have fallen off the sustainability rails regarding the use of fossil fuels to ferry water into cities.

Besides heating the atmosphere and making it unbearable for urban residents, these thousands of tankers spew daily air pollution, affecting our health. We pay a high price for a public utility like water through the added tax of petrol and diesel, all of which ends up in the exchequer of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, the countries which are enslaving our people in the first place.

How did a country with an overabundance of water become dependent on a complex web of fossil fuel, sold by undemocratic authoritative regimes, to get its drinking water? We have to look at neighbor India as a culprit as well—it has aggressively extended its motorcycles, trucks, tankers, and petrol pipelines into Nepal, bringing Modinomics (including a far too jovial relationship with petrol tyrants of Central Asia) into our country. If we are to separate ourselves from this tangled web, let us start with what we’ve always known—our own indigenous technology.

What we need is government policy which mandates rainwater harvesting, and reliable companies that can provide professional service. Unfortunately Nepal government is too busy collecting taxes and fees from migrant workers to think about training them in this essential work. So we continue to limp onwards, a city (and increasingly, a country) flooded by Himalayan rivers and the monsoon which is also captive to the fossil fuel and bottled water lobby.

Nepal government and aid agencies need to scale up technical trainings and regulatory mechanisms for traditional water harvesting and groundwater recharge, which is the only way dense cities like Kathmandu will have water in the future.

16 July, 2019

Conserve water, South Asia!

Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019

June 11th is the date for the arrival of the monsoon in Nepal. This year, there was no sign of rain on the 11th. The days ticked by as we looked at the skies, increasingly anxious about the oppressive feeling in the air. A cyclone predicted to hit the coast of Gujarat moved away to the ocean, and was blamed for sucking rain away from the mainland. Noone—meteorologists, climate change specialists, Indian scientific community, NASA-- seemed to know why the monsoon was delayed. As the drought worsened, maps started to appear on Twitter, showing how far the monsoon should have moved across the subcontinent by late June. Most Indian states which should have received rain had seen weak rainfall or none at all.

The briefest shower I have ever seen in Kathmandu washed away the dust on the leaves of my curry tree plant on June 17th. The rain lasted five minutes. On Asar 15th, we saw photographs of people planting rice in what looked like well-irrigated terraces. Muddy happy people stuck rice seedlings into the ground. For a Twitter moment, all seemed well.

For most urban dwellers running around on motorcycles, rain is an inconvenience that floods them in badly planned cities. Urban floods are an annual occurrence in cities like Mumbai. But “Floods” and “Droughts” are two sides of the same coin. For a continent that should recharge during rainy season and withdraw water during dry season, we tend to waste our precious water during monsoon in dirty, uncontrollable floods, and cry foul during dry season when another state or area which has better managed its resources refuses to give us its precious hoard.

South Asia has also adopted the electric underground pump with a vengence—most of us get our drinking water from groundwater reservoirs which are fed by rain. But South Asians in general are not known for frugal use of water. We extract massive amounts from our finite reservoirs with no thought for the future. We leave the tap turned on because there are no consequences from government or community.

Chennai, a city of an estimated 12 million people, has run dry. The alarming news that this major city in India had run out of water first became evident through satellite photographs posted by NASA, which showed before and after photographs of Puzhal Lake from 2018 and 2019. The four rainfed reservoirs in Chennai were operating at a 0.2 capacity. The city, the NASA article notes, “has been devoid of rain for almost 200 days.”  

An article by Nidhi Jamwal in The Wire on June 27th, titled “Not Just Chennai, India's Drought Situation Is Far Worse Than We Realise” quotes the South Asian Drought Monitor, “more than 44% area of the country is facing drought-like conditions, of which over 17% is facing ‘severe dry’ conditions.”

On June 23, I read an article titled “Amid growing crisis, Madhya Pradesh may become first state to introduce Right to Water Act” on the India Water Portal. The language of rights has always interested me, not the least in ways South Asians demand rights without also realizing it comes with responsibilities. So I posted this on Twitter:
In India too, the talk is all about "rights" but nothing about "responsibilities."
Not even basic water conservation steps like turning off taps, not overusing tubewells (I've seen these left gushing in India), just plain old abuse of water is not addressed.

India wastes massive amount of water, not the least for irrigation where farmers turn on an electric motor and leave the water gushing for hours on end. This waste is fueled by cheap electricity subsidies. As the July 1st op-ed “To handle water crisis, overhaul irrigation” by Joydeep Gupta in India Climate Dialogue pointed out, this must be replaced by the more efficient drip-irrigation system which pinpoints and directs water directly to the roots of the plant instead of flooding the entire field. He also advocates for a move from water intensive crops like rice towards barley, millets which are water efficient.

The language describing this crisis as “drought” and “climate change” removes human agency and turns this manmade environmental disaster into an abstract natural catastrophe. Yet we are very much to blame for this crisis. By we, I mean government policies which have prioritized pumps over indigenous methods of recharge, and forest clearcutting for mining companies instead of reforestation. By we, I mean cities which have paved every single inch with ashphalt and turned urban spaces into barren deserts. By we, I mean users who overpump underground reservoirs and overexploit it with no thought of the future.

It is clear that the Prime Minister’s Office in India is now taking the water conservation issue seriously. On 30 June, in his first Man Ke Baat program since his second re-election, PM Modi urged people to conserve every drop of water and create a database of people involved in the indigenous water conservation.

This is the very first step in acknowledging that wasteful use of water is a large cause of India’s water emergency. Now India needs to move towards a national and regional policy which prioritizes reforestation, river conservation, groundwater stewardship, rainwater harvesting, and wells and ponds revival.

Is South Asia, as a region, prepared for such a massive crisis? India and Pakistan continue to battle onwards with manufactured military crisis in Kashmir that eat away at their treasuries. So successful has this strategy been for political domination in each country that nobody—not least the political elites—seem willing to put this aside for the real issues, including water, besetting the subcontinent. India needs to sink a few million recharge wells into its cities and villages, but most of the money is siphoned off to buy clunky, decommissioned military hardware from Russia and France instead.

South Asia cannot afford a drought. We are a continent of a billion and a half people dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The crops may fail this year, and we need to plan for it. The alternative—South Asian government apathy—is too terrifying to imagine. Without rain to recharge these underground water dhukuti, we are looking not just at an abstract “monsoon deficit” but a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.  India must stop its BIMSTEC nonsense and immediately come onboard SAARC again. The very first issues the South Asian region must discuss is how to resolve the water and upcoming food shortage crisis. 

Printed in the Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019