Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Water

Where I grew up there is a term in my language Telugu, "Manchi Neelu", meaning "good water". First thing anyone coming in from the summer heat asks for is a glass of "Manchi Neelu". I never paid attention to this term until my father told me that it came into usage when there was no potable running water in homes and the purpose was to differentiate from water that was kept in the outhouse or verandah to wash ones feet before entering the home. The term in context actually means "drinking water".

I grew up in Hyderabad, India, where as long as I can remember, water was always a commodity in short supply. In the summers it was the most precious resource to have and hold. People's lives revolved around the art of collecting and hording water. In many parts running tap water was and still is a luxury.

I remember my father waking up at dawn to take advantage of the daily two hour city water supply, to fill up over head tanks and buckets to the hilt. As a teenager I remember staying with my sister in Bangalore, where my daily chore was to wake up at sunlight, walk my bicycle down the block with two buckets on either side of a bamboo stick to the local watering hole. A single municipal water connection to the entire neighborhood, with yawning faces standing in a long line holding colorful buckets and copper pots waiting for the water to flow. Then at 6 am sharp the tussle would begin and I would walk back cautiously hoping not to spill a drop. Then repeat the trip a few times until the storage tank was full for the day. This is still a routine for many in India and we were middle class. Reliable clean municipal drinking water through a faucet into one's home, is a rarity even today and so, many urban dwellers have resorted to buying bottled water or use filters and other contraptions to make water potable. The poor hygiene conditions, which India has come to be known for, are partly due the lack of adequate water. In many parts of rural India, people tread miles to secure their water.

In the last two decades, India has boomed, its cities have expanded beyond imagination, but the infrastructure has not kept up. Apartment towers that dot city landscapes sometimes buy water and fill up their over head tanks when their underground wells run dry. There is a black market for water to meet the demands of an ever expanding thirst. There is an illusion that there is enough water for all, but in reality, the swimming pools in luxury resorts and apartment towers are a rouge, just like the opulent water fountains of Las Vegas in the middle of the Mojave desert.

I came to America in 1992. Arriving at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago after a disorienting 24 hour flight, the clean shiny stainless steel toilets with hot and cold water running down my fingers on demand, was priceless. I thought I had arrived in the land of luxury. Soon taking a shower was a pleasurable new concept I had to get used to. Back home we mixed hot and cold water in a bucket and used a tumbler to pour it over our heads. A more efficient way of using water but a little cumbersome indeed. When I saw the car washes, dishwashers, private swimming pools, bathtubs, hot-tubs, sprawling grass carpets for golfing and manicured lush lawns, I knew I had arrived in the land of excess.

Today, the reasons behind the water crisis that is brewing around the planet are many and were always in plain sight. Poor management, regulation, conservation and infrastructure are huge contributing factors. Planetary fresh water reserves not being able to keep up with the needs of an ever expanding human population, is another. But climate change, is the most defining factor of our time, that will dictate how we quench our thirst and survive into the future.

The effects of climate change, though very early in their cycle, are already showing their devastating impact. The recent mass migrations into Europe from Africa, are partly due to war and conflict, but are also due to lack of food, water and other basic resources that are decimating livelihoods. The drought in California has been unrelenting for more than four years now. The historic low snow and rainfall experienced this past year has caused Californians to wake up to a new reality. California is America's food basket and 80% of its water consumption is set aside for agricultural land. With ground water levels rapidly falling, and reserves in lakes and reservoirs dropping to shocking levels, suddenly people are being asked to change their luxurious ways of living. Watering lawns is prohibited, long showers are to be constrained and restaurants are to reduce water use. Tax incentives are being given to people replacing their current appliances with water efficient ones and there is a demand to reduce water consumption by 25% this year. Last year the goal was 20%, which was barely met. Even though the farmlands of California feed America tomatoes, almonds, strawberries and other produce, they only contribute to about 2% of the states revenue. The reality is, computer chips and Hollywood can only feed one's imagination but not one's stomach.

Historic low rainfall in the island nation of Taiwan, has created a grave water crisis. More than a million homes are affected, where water supplies are now cut entirely for two days a week on a rotating basis. The situation there is only expected to get worse with climate change.

As the planetary engine changes its patterns, it will no doubt bring humanity to its knees, but it will also push us to innovate and adapt. But humanity's capacity to destroy what it already possesses is relentless. The pollution and damming of rivers and other water bodies around the world, is a contributing factor to the water crisis as well. The Colorado river in the United States has not reached the ocean regularly since 1960. It's waters dammed and siphoned for golf courses and farmlands as far away as California, have caused massive ecological devastation in the delta region. A new treaty between the US and Mexico is beginning to restore some hope, but some damage is irreversible. The river Ganges in India, which is considered to be sacred to Hindus, is being choked to death by the very devotees who gain spiritual sustenance from it. The factories and tanneries along its banks complete the job by spewing heavy metals and other effluents into its sublime waters. Global warming is shrinking the glaciers that feed the river more rapidly than ever. The Prime Minster of India made a campaign promise to clean the river, but the progress has been slow. Attempts to clean the Ganga have been in place for thirty years, but the conditions have only steadily worsened.

Humanity's capacity to do harm to that which gives it sustenance is astounding. It is the only species on the planet that is able to achieve this task by its very existence. And to meet the demands of its insatiable appetite and unquenchable thirst, it will empty the oceans if it has to. To adapt to California's forecasted misery, the world's largest desalination plant is being built in Carlsbard. When it opens in 2016, the $1 billion project will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day to San Diego County. Desalination plants are notorious for being environmentally unsound projects.

An average adult human body is made up of 50% to 65% water. And there is a reason nature created us this way. Air and water are the very basis of our existence. For this reason clean drinking water is a basic human right that is non-negotiable. When I came to America in 1992, I was shocked to come to a realization, that a gallon of Poland Spring water at a super market valued more than a gallon of gasoline at the pump. It used to be a running joke when I called home to relay my experiences, "only in America". When I left India there was no such thing as bottled water. When I used to return home on trips, I was told to drink bottled water so as to not catch water born diseases. Soon the bottled water industry began to thrive, catering to tourists and expats.

Today affluent Indians only drink bottled water, and the country is awash with plastic bottles polluting the environment. Bottled water in America has become the most profitable beverage, even though tap water is safe to drink without hesitation in most places. San Francisco's tap water comes from the pristine Yosemite National Park, and New York City gets its tap water from the Catskill Mountains. Yet an average American consumes 167 bottles of water per year and 30 billion are sold every year. The amount of plastic that has entered the environment has quadrupled as a result, and bottled water consumption is only going to increase as the water crisis intensifies. 

While most of California is in drought, the food conglomerate Nestle is in the spotlight for continuing to bottle water from a spring which is located on an Indian reservation for a profit. The reservation is located in a Mojave Desert oasis at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, 85 miles east of Los Angeles. Drawing water from that location, where just three inches of rain falls each year, prevents water from seeping downhill to fill aquifers of nearby towns struggling for water during the drought. While this is only a small part of the California water problem, there is something deeply dishonorable and corrupt about selling bottled water when water is scarce. There is something vile about the idea of selling bottled water for a profit, period. Next we will be selling packaged air for a profit. To no one's surprise, this has already been pioneered by a millionaire in China as a response to the acrid Beijing air. Humanity at its worst.

The ever growing human appetite to consume meat, is also rapidly causing the depletion of precious ground water in far off places. Beef farming in particular, is causing unprecedented environmental harm as farmers drill deeper and deeper into aquifers to feed their gigantic herds. As the appetite for beef rapidly grows in populous countries like India and China, the rush to meet the demand is already in high gear in places like Australia and New Zealand. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. Newsweek once broke down the equation by saying "the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer." Eating meat is no longer a health issue, it is clearly an environmental issue which we have to contend with if we have to save our planet.

Last year I visited Bombay on work and was put up at a fairly fancy hotel in a congested part of the city. While my room was comfortable with all the amenities one would expect from a three star hotel anywhere in the world, the view from my window was not. It looked into a back alley of a grimy apartment tower with window air-conditioners hanging from every floor and black rain water stains on green paint from top to bottom. But what made my day, was the best shower I ever took anywhere in the world. A heavy volume rain shower with a dial that set the temperature just right, hit the mark. While it was heavenly, I was aware this was a privilege reserved for a few, not for long. It is what it is.