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The New Hydrological Temples of Modern India
India's Water Crisis

To coincide with tomorrow's World Water Day, the day chosen by the UN “to draw attention to the plight of the more than 1 billion people world wide that lack access to clean, safe drinking water,” Nature has published a special issue on the present and worsening global fresh water shortage.

Our planet is facing a water crisis in public health: more than a billion people in developing nations lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 2 billion lack proper sanitation. And in the near future, water shortages are likely to spread into other key sectors — notably agriculture and energy.

While not merely pointing out the obvious, the issue also takes a look at some of the ways the crisis is being tackled. For instance, you can read about some of the new methods to disinfect and decontaminate water; new efforts to increase water supplies through the safe re-use of wastewater; and new strategies to increase farmers' yield in places where rains are often unreliable.

There is also an article on new technologies to greatly reduce the impact of desalination, called “the most energy-intensive form of water supply,” on the environment.

Every article is available online to non-subscribers but only temporarily, as some of them will be taken behind Nature's pay-per-view firewall in a week's time. So it's a good idea now to download the PDFs and save them in your archives.

Meanwhile, while they are still freely accessible, we'd like to take a closer look at one article about India's gargantuan endeavor “to link the majority of its major river basins through a vast network of canals, diverting billions of litres from the country's more water-rich river basins to those that are water-deprived.”

India's Water Crisis

As if imagined by rogue Army Corps engineers driven out of town after the Katrina fiasco, the project would re-knit the country's hydrological network “through a 10,000-kilometre long network of 30 canals, several of which will intersect with more than one river. The project, which is estimated to cost about US$200 billion, also includes the construction of 32 major dams.”

It's terrestrial reconfiguration as a means to control weather. A recontoured landscapes where the effects of the monsoon cycle are distributed throughout the Subcontinent. A new geography where “dry seasons” and “wet seasons” become less of a temporal experience.

[T]he interlinking project will put an additional 35 million hectares under irrigation — close to doubling the area fed by major irrigation projects in 2003, according to a press statement by Suresh Prabhu, then chairman of the NWDA Taskforce on Interlinking Rivers. In doing so, he stated, the project will combat drought in 250,000 hectares across the country, and reduce flood damage along the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers basins by some 20–30%. The perennial flooding of these two rivers, which together carry 60% of the nation's freshwater resources, last year caused $850-million worth of damage and killed more than 1,000 people.


[T]he project could also supply about 34,000 megawatts of hydropower — roughly doubling the current level of hydropower, which lies at just over 25% of the country's current electricity needs.

While hard facts are hard to come by, some are nevertheless considering the scheme as the biggest water project in the history of the world, even surpassing China's South-to-North Water Transfer Project.

India's Water Crisis

India's Water Crisis

Of course, as with any new hydrological project of this magnitude, there are calls for less monumental schemes. As but one example of a low impact strategy put forward to solve the water crisis, we read:

The solution lies in better management of existing water resources, rather than importing water for irrigation. A simple way to do this is by using large tanks to collect rainwater, which is later supplied to fields during dry periods. Indian irrigation practices could also be made more efficient. A lot of water is lost in evaporation or through drainage from unsealed irrigation canals, and the common practice of flood irrigation is wasteful compared with drip irrigation, which supplies water directly to the plant's roots. But the water used for irrigation is free, so Indian farmers have little incentive to adopt more economical methods.

But this is India, where “disciplines such as physics and engineering are highly respected” and the environmental sciences are the “untouchables: unseen and unheard.”

As Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, once said, dams are the “temple[s] of modern India.”

India's Water Crisis

So one wonders what new deities will spring forth from these concrete rivers and what new rituals will be created to celebrate the wonders of moving water against topography, against gravity.

Will these canals be lined with ghats, like those steps found in the holy city of Varanasi, on which pilgrims descend to “launch religious offerings of sweet-meats, fruit and flowers downstream on a small straw mat” without wading through fecal matter, garbage and strange odors?

Is the spatial ordering of this vast network of canals, as illustrated in the map of India above, really just a 21st century free-form interpretation of the mandala or some other formalized symbol of Indic mythology?

If not, could they be the markings of new pilgrimage routes?

India's Water Crisis

Perhaps when and if the project ever gets finished, a new chapter of the Mahabharata will be written, its epic tales of demons and gods, sages and wise men, civil servants and bureaucrats, hydroengineers and environmentalists largely taking place in these new landscapes.

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