Caption: If there is a single prominent symbol for India’s resource-draining, energy-wasting, treasury-tilting farm policies, it is the electric water pump. The agriculture sector makes up 19 percent of India’s electricity consumption, most of it to power India’s 20 million electric pumps that pull water from deep in the ground.
I recently read an article titled “Choke Point: India — The Leopard in the Well” about the grim situation of water-energy nexus in northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab (primarily in terms of irrigation, agriculture, produce, food security and so on) and the energy crisis facing our nation as a whole. The author has used the title as a metaphor for modern India as the story of the leopard in the well is especially apt. India is a 66-year-old democracy, touched by boundless energy and driven by endless ambition. But it also is a nation trapped by seemingly inescapable walls of resource waste, management disarray, and cultural divides of its own making. The Green Revolution that catalyzed grain production in the mid-1960s ended India’s fear of famine. But achieving food abundance is overwhelming India’s mammoth and unwieldy bureaucracy, draining its freshwater reserves, and straining the energy sector and electrical grid.
Pardon me for getting a little soapy here, however whenever I read about the issues of water-energy-agriculture, especially in the context of north Indian states, I get a little nostalgic. I have to give the credit to the author for keeping the article very informative and authentic. You see being an observer from another country helps in situations like these.
The article states that unlike China, Australia, the United States, and Qatar, in particular, India’s ever-fiercer competition for water by the agriculture and energy sectors is not the result of battling for scarce resources because of the following reasons
- Water reserves are ample.
- Soil is fertile.
- Reserves of coal are among the world’s largest.
The article mostly reflects on the policies of providing subsidized coal generated electricity-to draw groundwater-through tubewells-for irrigation. So you see where this is going.
I have observed this nexus so closely during the entire course of my career in India that I am almost compelled to say out loud “tell me about it”. In this blog post, I am not going to dwell upon the data and statistics (2003-13), as those facts have been adequately elaborated in the original article. This article only reflects my observations throughout the course of my career spanning a decade as a development professional in my home country.
A decade earlier:
I remember my very first assignment vividly, working at Janhit Foundation in Meerut towards the promotion of sustainable/organic agriculture practices.
When I started working at the grassroots level in 2003, I was astounded to observe how incessantly the tubewells used to run on electricity or more expensive diesel powered generators in the agricultural fields in and around Meerut district. We, Meerut residents, boast ourselves to be able to live in the Doab (region between two river, Ganga and Yamuna basins) in western Uttar Pradesh. As emphasized in the article, it has always been presumed that groundwater reserves are a plenty, soil very fertile and reserve of soil minerals adequate to grow all the water intensive cash crops such as sugarcane, wheat and paddy. However, over the decades following the green revolution the condition has deteriorated owing to the following reasons:
- Mono-cropping prevalence throughout the region
- Extensive use of chemicals in farming
- Abandoning of traditional seeds and methods in farming
- Diminished livestock usage in practicing agriculture
- Increasing abandoning of agriculture by farmers’ next generations
- Declining cost benefit involved in farming
- Climate change
The list is not exhaustive. This trend continued until the time when I left WWF-India’s Living Ganga Program in 2011. WWF India also undertook an interesting study to observe the water-energy nexus in irrigation at a pilot site in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
In 2003, besides watching the exploitation of energy and water resources in the rural areas, I also witnessed the crisis in the city. It was a pain to start working in the afternoon everyday because there was no electricity supply in the morning. We used to dread the time to use the diesel powered generator for an emergency. It was such a loss of productivity that looking back I cannot even calculate the man hours we wasted during the morning hours waiting for the electricity to come back on.
Even way before that, I remember that my parents had to buy expensive power back up (called ‘inverter’ in India) because of my high school exams. This was because of the unannounced unending power cuts in the electricity supply in late 90s.
That trend continued during my time in Janhit Foundation up to WWF-India and continues till date in Meerut city. It is quite ironical as my parents keep updating me proudly how real state is coming up in a major way in my home town and also because Meerut falls in the NCR (National Capital Region).
Now here we are in 2013:
A decade later, spending a large chunk of my professional life trying to support initiatives so as to alleviate all these crises, it’s heart breaking to see the situation has only got worse. We proudly claim that India is an emerging economy and at the same time there are power cuts lasting over weeks in almost half of nation as we saw in the recent past. This incidence put India on the world map for a completely regressive reason. We all know that India still has a long way to go to fulfill the growing population’s energy and water needs. Professionals criticize that the developed nations’ quench for/addiction to fossil fuels is being fed by different developing and developed countries rich in the same. Given this scenario, India’s incapability to utilize the available resources in the best possible manner elevates the crises to whole other level. There exists a struggle to get water to the fields and homes; energy for the domestic and commercial usage, rural electrification and so on. We also see that the immense potential of wind and solar energy goes untapped in a tropical nation such as ours.
The writer of the original article goes on elaborating the following key issues facing our nation today:
- Internal Indecision
- Food Production: Government’s policy of wastage
- Coal and electricity shortage: Endemic blackouts
- Solutions are difficult
After reading the article and reflecting upon my own experience, I really felt heart broken and complained out loud that I feel like a wrong doer for having left my country. However, on second thought, I believe that maybe this is my way of protesting that I do not agree with the existing policies by which our county is being run right now. I lamented about the same to a friend, saying that I do not expect to read a similar report on regression of India in 2023, to which she reacted saying, who knows it could be progression, right? As of now, I can only say amen to that.
For all those who think that this blog post might be about a sequel of the Julia Robert’s movie Eat.Pray.Love, please click here.
For others please read on to know what this means to us as individuals/consumers.
How it was like growing up in a vegetarian family in India?
Upon spotting the plums during our last trip to the local market, my husband exclaimed and asked whether I knew how to pick the right ones. Of course, was my answer. I aced the job and his joy had no bounds upon biting into the ripe and juicy plums, when we got home . He even mentioned (sadly) that growing up, he never ate as many fruits as he does now i.e. after my arrival in the US. This made me think, how differently both of us were brought up, despite being from the same country.
Our family being vegetarian (because of religious reasons) ate fresh and prevented a lot of food wastage in our daily routine. We bought only the amount of fruits and vegetables that were consumable over the course of a few days. My grandfather was even against the idea of refrigerating the fresh produce and used to make daily trips to our neighborhood market for buying the fresh produce. I remember those trips till date including his bargaining with the fruits’ and vegetables’ vendors, who used to address him as ‘Uncle’, out of affection.
How it is relevant today
Now we know that according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted! This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.
Growing up in a country like India, I have witnessed food being wasted (mostly in the cities) and people not getting to eat even one meal (both in the cities and villages) very closely. This year’s theme is more than welcome for a sustainability professional like me. However, the following key findings by the environmental action group Natural Resources Defense Council are a wake up call for all those who think that we are living in a food secured environment
- 40% of the food never gets eaten and a lot of money is spent on the same.
- Tossing one hamburger wastes water needed for a 90 minute shower.
- Americans waste 10 times more than an average person in SE Asia.
- 1/4th of the water in the US is used to grow food that is never eaten.
- Food waste is the largest type of waste entering the landfills.
- 10% of food in supermarkets is thrown out. This costs those supermarkets 50 billion dollars each year.
- Americans throw away 25 lbs of food per person/per month. It is the equivalent of throwing away $170.00
- We are wasting 50% more than in the 1970s.
- The average cookie is 4 times bigger.
- 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure.
These findings are startling given the magnitude of chid hunger and food insecurity faced by the country and the world as a whole today.
What can we do at a personal level?
Since the day I can remember, my mother taught us to buy locally and never wasted even a single food item in our household. She used to fret over the spoiled milk and made Indian cottage cheese (paneer) out of it by using this neat trick. This is very common in most Indian households. When we had some leftovers (curried and others), she used to reuse them to create innovative Indian dishes (stuffed or kneaded chapatis/ paranthas, and so on). I continue to do the same now at my home here.
As individuals, there are a few simple measures that we can adopt in our everyday lives to address this problem:
- Shop locally as long as possible
- Do try to visit your local farmer’s market every other day
- Try to connect with the local food bank and donate in kind (or in the form of goods) there if possible
- Join a community garden and adopt a patch of land or land a hand there
- Monitor your weekly consumption of food at home and then buy accordingly to avoid the wastage
- Explore your neighborhood shops and ask where the produce is being sourced from to make more informed choices
- Help the local businesses connect with the food banks in your area by spreading the information, facilitating the relationship building and other similar initiatives
- Try to inculcate the concept of ‘waste not want not’ in your kids from the beginning.
I recently came across this great effort being undertaken in Mumbai, India to provide food to the underprivileged kids by the Dabbawala Foundation.
Efforts like these and many others shall go a long way in paving the path towards sustainable food sourcing, alleviating hunger and ensuring food security.
Its no surprise to read about the repetitive situation and water crises year after year back home in India. The latest one being this article in NY Times, which prompted me to write this post.
Last year I have written about the world’s costliest water. That post was about my general perspective on water and how it relates to the gender issue. Here I want to spell out my experience of the seasonal water crisis that I have seen weighing the most on women in India.
Typically, one would imagine that water crisis might exist primarily in the desert states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and so on or eastern parts of the state of Uttar Pradesh as well as in most urban slums in major cities (Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi to name a few) as stated in the NYT’s article. From my experience of working in the water sector, especially on the development side of the issue, I can say that the crisis is ubiquitous in most Indian states, only the magnitude might differ from place to place.
The idea behind all these studies and endeavors remains the same. Women are the ones who bear the most brunt as soon as the summertime arrives in India and they must spearhead the initiatives to alleviate water scarcity.
It has also been demonstrated in all these studies and researches that women do not take water for granted. How could they? They have to earn it everyday by doing the most unproductive chore of fetching water from the point source to their homes.
The mention of the environmental magazine Down to Earth’s (DTE) 2012 report on a notable development from 2011 about women from 60 village councils in Bundelkhand, in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, who had established water councils brought back memories flooding for me.
The pani panchayat idea — forming separate bodies in villages, run chiefly by women, to secure better access to water — dates from the 1970s in Maharashtra, but it is only recently that water councils have spread to other states, the article states.
When I worked with the Janhit Foundation (2003-2006) in India, our team had also initiated forming of similar water councils in Meerut as well as other neighboring districts in western Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), similar to the ones now being formed in eastern province of Bundelkhand.
By 2006, the number of councils in our area led mostly by women from the Dalit caste (one of the most oppressed castes in India) in urban slums like Jai Bheem Nagar and others had grown to 6. They had more than 30 female workers who had brought in hand pumps and restored old wells and other traditional rainwater harvesting structures. Through outreach efforts we used to emphasize the importance of restoring traditional rainwater harvesting structures, like ponds (tanks) and wells, and through “shramdaan” (manual contribution) the community used to come together for the rejuvenation of these structures before monsoons every year.
It is mentioned in the NY Times article that in Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere, women are learning a new term, one the water councils use to describe a member trained in water storage and conservation — “jal saheli,” or a “friend of water.” We used to call them “Jal Behen” (sister of water) and “Jal Bhai” (brother of water) under our campaign.
I know that the names might have changed, people might have moved on, however the endeavor still continues. Now the flag bearer is another organization, NEER Foundation, striving hard to spread the same message and reducing the water crisis in my home town in India and making more “Jal Behens” and “Jal Bhais” along the way. This is what really matters in the end.
“You cannot step into the same river twice”, I read somewhere recently.
Lately a series of articles on international and transboundary cooperation for water resources and crises management caught my attention. These articles more or less summarize the current situation around water under the following headings:
- Not Conflict, But Stress and Tension
- Untapped Waterways
- Making Treaties More Comprehensive and Responsive
- Information Helps, But Political Process Crucial
Yet in another article the global challenges were explained in a different way stating that the state of water resources is constantly changing as a result of the natural variability of the Earth’s climate system and the anthropogenic alteration of that climate system.
Having worked on a transboundary water resources management program, I agree to all that has been stated in these articles.
However, I still truly believe that one approach that needs to be emphasized and strengthened even further is to initiate dialogue and cooperation on water issues at all levels with the identified stakeholders. That said it means that grassroots, community based and civil society organizations cannot be left out from the process. Also, it cannot be ignored that both technical and political solutions are needed to reap the rewards and alleviate the danger from the proposed solutions especially the ones around infrastructure projects. Esoteric approaches may not work in this particular situation.
From personal experience, I can say that this approach goes a long way in the following situations:
- Community water resources management of traditional water storage structures such as tanks, lakes and ponds along with the watershed management in rural settings
- For Basic Services to Urban Poor provision in urban areas for clean water supply and wastewater management
- For coastal and marine water resources management and
- Transboundary water resoources management for river basins and such
The crux of the matter is that these challenges being global it is true that no stand alone country or approach can solve the rapidly increasing problems around water related issues on it’s own such as the availability of water in the natural and man made channels, clean and safe drinking water for all, water for irrigation and so on to name a few.
It is envisioned that a holistic plan incorporating all the proposed solutions shall go a long way in solving the global water crises.
From LtoR: Brian Kavanagh, Assembly member; Roland Lewis, MWA; Adam Lubinsky, WXY; Susan C. Drake, Cooper Union and Harvard University; Daniel Tainow, L.E.S.E.Center; Christopher Collins, Solar One
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, Assembly member Brian Kavanagh and
Community Boards 3 & 6, Lower East Side Ecology Center (L.E.S.E.C.), NYS Department of Coastal Resources made a presentation on The East River Blueway Plan to discuss storm resiliency strategies and waterfront enhancement projects from the Brooklyn Bridge to East 38th Street.
Follow important points were highlighted during the presentation by key presenters:
Brian Kavanagh, Assembly Member:
- Wall is not feasible.
- Natural barriers for instance salt marshes and wetlands are sustainable for making the shoreline resilient.
- People have a tremendous desire to go into the river
- River as an opportunity has been underutilized so far
- When completed the Blueway shall be a continuos corridor for people to move from point A to B
Roland Lewis, President and Founder, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA):
- NYC is above water
- Sandy has been a wake up call
- Mayor Bloomberg, Army Corps, Washington D.C. and the Department of Agriculture’s collaboration
- NYC’s waterfront is a utility, only different is that it’s owned by 1000s of stakeholders
- The Blueway Plan is a better way to understand that utility
- Waterway is a product and process or model
Product: Places have to be kept dry, for instance electric, and wet, for instance water passages in the parks.
- Lot of our neighborhoods have been landlocked.
- This plan recognizes MWA’s mission statement
- Reemphasized the importance of natural shoreline, wetlands and salt marshes.
Process: People are the process.
- They drive the policy dialogue
- This is a regional issue too.
- Think regionally and act locally
- The Bluewater Plan is a piece of regional plan.
- 724 member organizations of M.W.A shall be using the Bluewater Plan as a starting block.
- All the comprehensive plans shall go a long way in making the waterfronts more alive.
Three questions formed the goal defining foundation for the East River Bluewater Plan.
- How long have you lived along the river?
- What is your interaction with the river? What is the changed impression of the river?
- How do you want the river to evolve in the future?
Several stakeholders responded to the above mentioned questions and the following four goals emerged:
Goal 1 : Engaging the river
Goal 2: Improving community access
Goal 3: Creating waterfront continuity
Goal 4: Planning for resilient neighborhoods
Questions from the audiences:
- Why the Upper East Side has been left out from the plan? (For Mr. Kavanagh)
- What about the walking paths, vendors, kiosks, food outlets and so on along the plan (For Mr. Kavanagh and Mr. Lewis)
- How close you are to realizing the plan in terms of timeline, funding and so on (Mr. Kavanagh)
For detailed information on the East River Blueway Project, please click here.
The 2013 Mayoral Forum on Sustainability was held on Monday, April 22 at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in NYC.
This Forum was brought together by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF)
The following salient points were discussed during the Forum:
- Does everyone believe as a principle that man made global warming is real? Yes
- Buildings are responsible for 75% of carbon emissions in NYC. Does everyone agree? Yes
- Is 30% reduction in emissions a realistic goal?
- Where and when the trade offs happen for retrofitting of the buildings constructed way back in the 1950s-60s?
- What is at the heart for the carbon reduction strategy? Mixed views
- Will you discontinue what Mayor Bloomberg has started? Mixed views
- Is anyone in the favor of closing of the nuclear power plants? Only C. Quinn
- Has anyone studied the Stanford’s study on turbines for meeting all the energy needs of NYC? No one.
- What are your views on fracking? Mixed views
- What about the flood zoning areas in the wake of latest events, Irene and Sandy?
- What are the alternatives to the wall construction strategy? Marshlands, Oyster beds, natural environment
- Does implementing the above mentioned strategy mean ruining the area/development around the banks?
- What is the take on buying back strategy? Mixed views
- Does anyone disagree on the natural measures to combat climate change? Yes. Mixed suggestions
- Does everyone agree that all New Yorkers should live within 10 minutes of their workplaces? Yes
- What is NYC doing about the air quality and environmental stress in general?
- What are the future strategies for better solid waste management?
After the question answers session, all the candidates were given two minutes time to wrap up their views on sustainability in NYC’s context.