Our rivers may well disappear in the near future — not because of geological faults, but because of our diverting every drop from rivers for other purposes. Rivers will soon be languishing in tepid pools.

Rivers flow. They are supposed to. In better times, water on land coalesced into gurgling brooks, streams and rivers. Bearing nutrients, silt and sediments, they supported myriad life forms and enriched agricultural plains before emptying into the oceans. Today, man has modified river flows through dams, via canals to taps, commodes, industries and fields. Enriched en route with wastes and chemicals, the toxic sludge sluggishly drains into the oceans. As if this level of desecration were not enough, there have been renewed calls for further tinkering.

Just like the ancient river Saraswati, our rivers may well disappear in the near future, not because of geological faults but because of our diverting every drop of water from rivers for other purposes. Rivers will soon be languishing in tepid pools.

In his article ‘Ma Ganga needs scientist Bhagirath’ (July 1, 2012), Dhirendra Sharma unwittingly demonstrates a remarkable sense of indifference to the growing ecological concerns of the Gangetic basin, and across most of our rivers. He calls for harnessing the potential of the Himalayan lakes and glaciers to ensure uninterrupted water and power, which will bridge the urban-rural divide. An article by Jyothi Thottam in Time magazine examines the fallout of the Tehri dam construction in Uttarakhand and reveals some harsh truths.

Water from the dam is transported over 194 km to Delhi, where 50 per cent is squandered, thanks to theft and losses due to crumbling pipes. The remaining water is unequally distributed. The poor in Delhi still queue up for water. Back in Uttarakhand, 100 villages around the Tehri dam’s periphery which never faced water shortages before, do so now.

If projects fail to benefit all people equally, who are the “future generations” listed in the article as beneficiaries of water diversion projects? Millions eke out a living along the Ganga. In the Sundarbans delta alone, four million people survive in the mangrove forests and tidal creeks. With the threat of rising sea levels and the ingress of salt water into land all too real, coastal communities will be affected the most due to modifications in river flows.

Simply increasing hydropower production and freshwater supply is not going to solve the demand for these ‘essentials.’ We seem to be governed by the ‘rebound effect,’ also called Jevons paradox, because our wasteful practices will find newer ways to (mis)use these resources, and in the process return to a state of deficit. We don’t yet have a wise-use water policy and are brazen enough to cultivate water-intensive crops like sugarcane and paddy in arid areas, use potable water to wash cars, water lawns and create water-theme parks. The perceived power and water deficit is less about availability, and more about regulation and equity in distribution across the various sectors. It is a vicious ‘demand-supply-more demand’ cycle that cannot be satisfied until such time that better sense prevails.

And what about countless other lifeforms that depend on the same freshwater, including India’s national aquatic animal, the Gangetic dolphin? A recent study shows that these animals now live only in the few remaining deep pools of our rivers, and can no longer survive in the intervening sections because of low flow rates. Interestingly, fishermen also used these deep channels as fish occurred nowhere else. Reduced river flows will affect both dolphins and people.

We have excelled at gathering expertise from the western world to build dams but it is time we gathered expertise in removing them. In the United States, around 1,000 dams have been removed till date as stakeholders realised that the costs outweighed the benefits. Instead of building more dams to meet India’s growing water needs, waste water should be recycled and reused. Israel recycles and reuses 80 per cent of its waste water! Waste water is also recycled and reused in Spain, the United States, Singapore and Australia. India has only recently endeavoured on this path. Some time ago, the Delhi Jal Board and Singapore signed an agreement to set up treatment plants that will enable waste water to be recycled and reused.

Development should be equitable. In its current form, it is not. Much as the author wishes, we need not and cannot afford to ape the vulgar and wasteful lives in the high-rises of New York and Chicago. We wholeheartedly agree that only after logical reasoning should one undertake a course of action. As it stands today, there is too much blind faith in the development-employment dogma to provide solutions, and this needs to be re-examined.

(Chaitanya Krishna (chethikrishna@yahoo.com) and Tarun Nair are wildlife biologists)

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