This needs reiteration – when civilisation began, humanity was compelled to settle along water sources and rivers. If there was climate change, people would either migrate or make the effort to transport water by canals and other means to where they lived. This led to extraordinary feats of engineering, many of which can be seen to this day, such as the Roman aqueducts, flood basins in ancient Egypt, tanks and ponds in India, etc. What was thought to be religious mumbo jumbo regulating irrigation and cropping proved actually to be scientific water management so that people upstream and downstream of a river could fully utilise rising water levels in rivers. If there were differences, these were resolved on a utilitarian basis – kings served their own needs first and those of their subjects, and if that meant disregarding the demands of rival nations or societies, so be it.
Whoever is experiencing the deluge underway in Uttarakhand these days cannot but wonder at the amount of water going waste. Instead of being channelised, stored, retained in water catchments, harvested in homes and communities, it is flowing destructively through the state causing economic and environmental loss. The same happens every year throughout the country in the larger perspective. Unfortunately, unlike the successfully competitive civilisations of the past, India is not exhibiting the resolve to harness this great wealth for its benefit. Whatever evidence carpers might present of the adverse impact of projects like the Tehri Dam, Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Indira Gandhi Canal, the advantages are there for everybody to see. The last is greatly responsible for having checked the large scale, creeping desertification of North India, which was a genuine threat in the seventies. If there are problems in the future, it will be more because of failure to properly manage what has been built.
The total amount of rainfall in the country is sufficient for the needs of agriculture and human consumption. All that is required is management and retention of the ‘excess’. Israel’s ability to extract water even from the air, and to utilise it to the maximum extent, should be a lesson for all nations. For a nation like India to face shortages merely reveals its lethargy and lack of motivation. The ‘kings’ are not strong-willed enough to do what they think is right, while scientists and engineers are not given their due place in deliberations. Enormous amounts are spent on schemes supposedly meant for welfare of the poor, but which remain unsustainable because the fundamental resources are not properly managed. How can dry latrines and outdoor defecation be stopped in India, when so many people do not have access to running water in their homes? How can the MNREGA beneficiary progress without irrigation for his field?
All that a city like Dehradun needs to avoid damage from heavy rains is a proper drainage system, which it incidentally had in earlier days. Not only will its infrastructure survive, the water would be channelised as of yore into ponds and lakes, with the rest finding its way into the many rivers. What keeps the town-planners from ensuring the proper flow of rainwater? Why are roads built in the valley without drains alongside? If its famous canals are disappearing, why are others systems not taking their place? How long will ‘development’ remain a piecemeal process, driven by contracts conceived to match availability of funds? How long will the lack of imagination limit the scope of governance, both, in the city and the state? There is no greater irony than the fact that Uttarakhandis can drown in water, but not have enough in their homes to drink.