Mridula Ramesh is the founder of Sundaram Climate Institute, which works on water and waste solutions, and is an angel investor in cleantech start-ups. Ramesh’s latest book, Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It , excavates India’s water history — our traditional management methods and the follies of colonial rule that plunged India into multiple famines — and looks at the contours of the country’s contemporary water crisis that brought Chennai precipitously close to Day Zero two years ago. Watershed then catapults us into a dystopian 2030, when Ramesh anticipates a raging El Nino, a failed monsoon, dry borewells, and a private company that proposes to cool the planet by injecting reflective particle mist into the stratosphere to block sunlight. Excerpts from an interview:
What does the great famine of 1877 — brought on by a confluence of a failed monsoon and colonial avarice, and exacerbated by a cholera outbreak that killed millions in India — teach us about water management today?
The famine’s official death toll was over 5 million, which was a huge underestimate. What struck me was how short public memory is. If you ask any Indian about famines, they will not mention the 1876-77 famine. So, the first thing is to remind ourselves that this happened and people died and it reshaped India in so many ways. The second thing to recognise is just how capricious the Indian monsoon can be. Yes, it comes every year, but it can change dramatically over the years. The 1877 El Nino is one of the strongest on record. Climate models are predicting that future El Ninos may well become more powerful. So, imagine if something like that happens: back then, we were only 220 million; today we are 1.3 billion. Those days, we grew resilient millets — that’s what most of us ate. Today, we grow and eat strains of rice and wheat that are less able to cope with the vagaries of the monsoon. To me, the biggest message is that the crisis of water is frightening and we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg.
Then there is the variety of lived experiences. Even during the famine, there were farmers in Tirunelveli and Tanjore who had access to regular irrigation and were doing very well. But what about the landless labourers in Arcot? When you read accounts of what happened, it’s really tragic. This diversity of lived experiences has parallels today. A wealthy farmer with access to a functional borewell during a drought will do well. But what about landless labourers or a small farmer caught in a rainfed farm — which is most of our farmers — what will they do?
How important is it to invest in reviving traditional water management methods such as Alwar’s johads and our ubiquitous stepwells?
I think it’s the most critical thing we can do. If I had to summarise the book in a single sentence, it is that we really got our water right once. We understood that our capricious cloud messenger has certain facets; it is geographically variable, highly seasonal, highly temporally skewed. Most of India’s rainfall takes place in just 100 hours. And as El Ninos and larger factors enter and exit the stage, the rains vary substantially over the years. Whatever water policy or intervention you frame has to keep these factors in mind.
Once upon a time, we understood this. Our kachcha tanks provided storage, addressed geographical variability, provided space for intense rainfall and addressed inter-annual variability. Similarly, the kallanai shows that ancient Tamils understood the sophisticated sedimentation processes when a river branches out into several streams. Today, many of our interventions strive to control water. Because they come from the colonial mindset that is shaped by a British water regime, which is very different from the Indian one.
How did the ‘borewell revolution’ change India’s relationship with water?
The borewell has transformed India like few other technologies have. I don’t think we have fully recognised its power. The first thing a borewell does is accentuate inequality. It is an expensive affair, which means much of India cannot afford one. It accentuates inter-generational inequality, because today many borewells are running dry, leaving the next generation of farmers in the lurch. We didn’t imagine that something that seemed endless would run out. But it is running out, and it is opening up a new conversation.
- Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, and MBA from Kellogg School of Management
- Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles, headquartered in Madurai
- On the Board of Trustees, WWF India, and Chairperson, Board of Governors, NIT Andhra Pradesh
- Her first book, ‘The Climate Solution’ (2019), looks at how climate change impacts India and how to build resilience
Tell us about your personal journey to water security when your borewell ran dry in Madurai and you found yourself entirely out of water in 2013.
Initially, we thought it was to do with the motor failing, which also speaks to the level of ignorance in this field. We never once thought that water could run out. It was our ‘aha’ moment: we realised we had to manage our demand. Once we decided to do that, there was a need to look at data, to see where the water was going. Once we got the data, it started speaking its own story and told us where to act. We discovered that the kitchen was consuming a ridiculous amount of water and we reduced the water pressure in our taps. We began using RO-reject water for our garden after testing for TDS. We upgraded our rainwater harvesting system and now use different qualities of water for different purposes.
You have described water as ‘female’.
Who bears the brunt if water is not available? Women collect water. It is a sickening, horrible job. You get up at two in the morning and elbow your way to get one or two pots. People talk of water being free. It is not. The poor pay the highest price for water, especially in the compromises made in terms of time and health. The price some paid for water during the Chennai water crisis was substantially higher than what Singapore charges. One woman I interviewed was paying 66 paise per litre; in contrast, the highest water tariff in Singapore is 19 paise per litre.
Why is water management not political priority?
Water provision is politically very salient. But managing water is a less politically powerful proposition. In the book, I took case studies from Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Telangana and studied how politicians look at water. We asked over 900 people if they would vote on water and waste and most people said no. This was in the middle of a drought. Party, candidate, cash mattered more. A few people said if you give me a water connection, I will vote for you. This was about provision, not management. Only one person said they would vote for someone who desilts canals. Why is this? My hypothesis is that life is so uncertain. If you are an urban, economically vulnerable person, such as a maid, a cobbler, a shop assistant, or someone from rural India who subsists on rainfed crops, life is uncertain, credit costs are high, anything that does not happen in the here and now does not matter at all. Your outlook is a question of a couple of weeks. Which makes the provision of water powerful political capital, but the management of water political suicide, because management takes time. This is depressing and empowering in equal measure, because it means managing water is our responsibility.