What will you protect first? Water or forest?


Do you find yourself in the middle of another chicken and egg story as you read the title of this blog? You should, because it is.

Editor of Sanctuary Asia, Bittu Sahgal, has something interesting to say about the Cauvery river in India. Stay with me, we are on the same story. “Cauvery Cunnundrum: States fight over the water, but cannot find the wisdom to protect the water source… the forests.

So, we should have more national parks, right?

I have another story for you, that of the Van Gujjars, a forest-dwelling nomadic tribe in northern India, who for centuries have migrated into the Himalayas every spring. Now their culture and livelihood is at risk as some of the jungles and meadows they call home have become national parks.

As it goes, solutions are not cut and dried.

This year, Peru established that it would protect one of world’s last great untouched forests. Difference between this and the national parks in northern India is that Peru is working alongside local and international conservation groups and the National Park designation also protects land inhabited by several tribes of indigenous peoples, it doesn’t push them away. Or at least, that’s what the article says.

Technically, you are not in a chicken and egg story anymore. It is not this and that. It is different – each case.

Which water would you prefer? Sparkling, tap, pure, arctic ice, reclaimed water, desalinated?

I'll have the limited edition Arctic sea ice water (1)

What do you say when a server in a restaurant asks you the kind of water you’d like to have – sparkling, still, or tap (also known as regular)? Do you respond with one of the options given, or do you ask for bottled water? How about you are given an opportunity to have customised water? Customised can mean unleaded (I just made this up), pure, or mineral.

If pure, would you like to have treated through deionisation, reverse osmosis, carbon filtering, microfiltration, ultrafiltration, ultraviolet filtration, or electrodeionization? If mineral, what kind of minerals do you want in it? If spring, which spring do you want it from? If bottled, what brand do you prefer? Last, but not the least, at what temperature do you want it to be? Chilled, slightly chilled, slightly warm, warm, 35 deg Celsius?

Wait, the list hasn’t finished yet. Would you like spring water dug from underground or surface water? Or do you prefer we fetch it from a well? We also have a limited edition Arctic ice water that has been melting away from the ice sheet for quite some time now. Would you like water from a desalination plant or reclaimed water such as NEWater? We also have well-preserved rainwater for your disposal.

Perhaps in the future, there will be a way to mimic the exact water composition from a particular spring so that we no more deplete groundwater? Who knows maybe it has been condensed from the fog? Perhaps someday you’ll have your own portable fog collector. Because how do you know the restaurants are telling the truth? We will then need third-party certifications such as Pure Random Estimations (P.U.R.E.)?

Spare me some water: who has the right to water?

Early on in my life, someone said to me that it is a good idea to keep some water out in the window for the sparrows. Mumbai has very few avenues where a sparrow can get a good amount of water to wiggle its feathers in to clean itself or to quench its thirst. There are some I know who spare some water for the little sparrows. I’ve seen some come to my window here in New Jersey too but I don’t have to spare them water here because our apartment has a great view of a river. However, why do they still come to the water on the ground flowing out of a water faucet? May be they do go to the river and I’ve not noticed. I took the following video of a sparrow in water this morning:

Did you know? The world’s oldest desert, the Namib Desert has existed for at least 55 million years, completely devoid of surface water but bisected by several dry riverbeds. These riverbeds are vegetated and are home to a few ungulates, such as Hartmann’s zebras. The south of the desert is extremely dry and even lacks dry riverbeds; gemsbok is the only large mammal to occur in this harsh environment. Thick fogs are frequent along the coast and are the life-blood of the desert, providing enough moisture for a number of interesting, highly-adapted animal species to survive. Source: WWF

Drought can be caused by:

  • Lack of rain or snow over a period of time
  • Disturbance in the water cycle
  • Changes in the wind patterns that move clouds and moisture through the atmosphere can cause a place to not receive its normal amount of rain or snow over a long period of time

Climate change induced drought affects not only birds but all of the species on the planet. It has made cold-water fishes to migrate to colder regions and created dead zones that are drained of oxygen. Where areas that have intense flooding it means less reproduction for some species such as salmon and spread of water-borne diseases.

What do we do about the drought? In India, the first “water train”—with 10 tank cars each holding 54,000 liters of water reached the drought prone Latur. In California, the mandatory water conservation rules fail to take into account that the agriculture industry consumes 80 percent of the state’s water and is was exempt from the new restrictions. Solution to which may lie in free market for water.

Water right in water law refers to the right of a user to use water from a water source, e.g., a river, stream, pond or source of groundwater. Selling water access entitlements is called water trading. Water trading in the world is mapped below:
Water trading map

Yesterday I met an old lady in a table tennis club that my husband and I go to. We ended up talking about rainwater harvesting and she told me that it is illegal in some parts of the US. I thought it is not fair that if the water falls on one’s property one should be entitled to it. To which she said that it is not so straight forward. What do you think? Should we be entitled to all or some of the the rainwater that we collect on our roofs? While this is the situation in US, India is trying to make rainwater harvesting mandatory. Hmm.


Dipping a toe in global waters

person-692406_1280Vetturale di natura (vehicle of nature)” said Leonardo Da Vinci, when he observed water and studied hydrodynamics. Then there are others who explore the world of water in a different way. One of them is Joshka Wessels. She has documented and researched the technology and rehabilitation of thousand-year old underground water tunnels called qanats in countries like Syria, North Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Morocco and Spain. These qanats face the danger of drying up due to climate change led droughts. She speaks about this in her documentary ‘Water from the Dawn of Civilization‘.

Recently, The Guardian asked its readers if they were affected by a lack of water or drought. It asked them to share their pictures and stories via GuardianWitness. It may seem that only those who are afflicted by these conditions care the most about water scarcity. But many organisations and companies are measuring their water footprint to see the impacts of their water usage around the world, because they realize the importance of water. If such steps are not taken, wars would be waged in the name of water. This world map shows water conflicts around the globe.

What if thirsty people start killing each other like zombies? How’s that for apocalypse? Jon Freedman, Global Government Affairs Leader, GE differs in opinion in this talk where they discuss why everyone is obsessed with apocalypse. He says he is not a fan of drinking his own pee and the solution of water scarcity in fact involves drinking your open pee, by which he meant treated waste water. He points out that there is water scarcity around the world, but there is a solution. ‘We can desalinate and treat waste water,’ he says. He says that there is no such thing as absolute water scarcity and water desalination is a solution as long as you have a coastline. Wait a minute, approximately one-fifth of the world’s countries are landlocked and have no access to the oceans, what are they going to do? Probably treat and reuse waste water. No wonder he says waste water treatment comes first to desalination. In desalination vs. purification, purification wins, because desalination is too costly.
Coming back to water footprinting, Waterfootprint Network defines water footprinting as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business, measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated or incorporated into a product) and/or polluted per unit of time. Three kinds of water footprints are measured and these are:
  1. Green water footprint is water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants. It is particularly relevant for agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.
  2. Blue water footprint is water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time. Irrigated agriculture, industry and domestic water use can each have a blue water footprint.
  3. Grey water footprint is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers point-source pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse sources.

Classification of water footprint by type of water only paints half the picture, we also have local consumption, global water consumption and virtual-water flows. The impacts of making a product in a country ‘A’ could have a water footprint in a country ‘B’. How? This is called the virtual flow of water. Who best describes it than P. Sainath? He talks about rose cultivation in Maharashtra in his article ‘How the other half dries‘. Roses require 21.2 million litres of water per acre and its exports from India went up by some 15-25 % in 2013. Dr. Craig Jones provides an example of steel cladding. Steel cladding in European Union could be causing a impact in India, which has considerable water shortages. This is what is called ‘importing water scarcity’ by exporting products, which no one wants but has anyway. The virtual-water flows related to international trade in crop, animal and industrial products (1996-2005) can be seen down below.


(Image: Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over  the period 1996-2005. Only the biggest gross flows (> 15 Gm3/yr) are shown; the fatter the arrow, the bigger the virtual water flow. Source: Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) National water footprint accounts: the green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 50, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.)

ISO 14046:2014, an international standard for water footprint assessment, specifies principles, requirements and guidelines related to water footprint assessment of products, processes and organizations based on life cycle assessment (LCA). The GEMI Local Water Tool™(LWT) is a free tool for companies and organizations to evaluate the external impacts, business risks, opportunities and management plans related to water use and discharge at a specific site or operation. We also have a tool by the Water Footprint Network.

Even if standards and tools for water conservation are at our disposal, conservation of existing water bodies is equally important. For example, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) India claimed that the 2014 Kashmir floods were caused due to shrinking wetlands and therefore is a man-made disaster. They said that wetlands act as a sponge that retains excess water. Due to economic development in these areas, Dal Lake has shrunk to half its size and Wular Lake is just 10% of its original size. Shrinkage of water bodies has also been seen in other parts of the world. For example, the Aral Sea.

If you want to see a change, you got to be that change, said Gandhi and he is right. I have a different lifestyle here in the US and therefore my water consumption pattern has changed. I just found out, National Geographic has a water footprint calculator, but unfortunately it only applies to USA. Now that I’m in USA, I tried and I’m guilty. But it would have been great if I could do that for India as well, because then I’d know the difference. The calculator by Water Footprint Network on the other hand lets me choose the country I live in. Be sure to try their extended calculator. It asks too many things though, for example, I don’t know how much kgs of cereal I eat every week. That’s too overwhelming for me! I therefore choose to use water consciously, instead of measuring my water usage (grumbles). If you try, let me know! Peace-out. Lots of tips out there by the way, to save water.

Further reading:

Thanks to Circular Ecology and Craig Jones, who delivered a webinar on water footprint, which inspired me to write this article. You can find the webinar details and the video here. During this webinar, I asked him some questions that might interest you and I’ve noted them down below. For questions from other participants and the answers to all the questions, see the webinar video.

  • Q. Are there any dirty dozens of sorts for industries that consume water the most? (Psst. I just found out that Sustainable Technology Forum has 10 listed.)
  • Q. Are there any water footprinting calculators for common people? (Like I said in the article above, I have just found out two such calculators.)
  • Q. It would be interesting to see the difference of footprinting, carbon or water, of synthetic meat vs real meat. (Psst. I just found out Water Footprint Network has this one sorted.)

Water history for our times: The revised version of Water History of our Times was published end of June 2011 by UNESCO-IHP. The essay was written by Professor Fekri Hassan, the Egyptian archaeologist and historian. The books purpose is to foster a better understanding of the historical development, cultural diversity and ethics of freshwater use and management, and its relationship to issues of equity, cooperation and social cohesion, which is considered a prerequisite for the equitable and peaceful sharing of water resources.

John Anthony Allan – the brain behind virtual water and water footprinting

A case of ecological illiteracy: Mumbai flood

That's little me. In the background is a house that was in front of our house. The people in it evacuated during the flood.
That’s little me. In the background is a house that was in front of our house. The people in it evacuated during the flood.

As I write this, I can recall some memories from that day. I was 15 back then and it was just another rainy day for us until we saw the sewage had started to overflow and the land in front of our house was nowhere to be seen. It started happening so quickly that water was soon everywhere. We lived in a two-storey house. We moved our belongings to the upper floor. We couldn’t move everything. We mounted the fridge on the bed . We then chained two big, blue-colored water storage barrels in the fear that they would get away with the outpour. The water soon rose to a height of about 6 feet. My father and my brother somehow managed to bring packets of instant noodles. My mother cooked them for me and my cousin. The cousin had arrived at an unfortunate time. He had come from a village that probably will never see a flood, a hilly area way above the sea-level.

When the water receded, we moved back to the lower level of our house. We wondered if it was really over until we heard a mob screaming and rushing towards our house. As they moved towards us, the mob grew bigger in size as all people in the adjacent houses it passed by had panicked and joined the mob. The mob was afraid that a huge wave of water was headed our way. We rushed with our the then 95-year-old grandmother in the direction the mob was taking us. We all settled in a temple nearby that was situated at a height where the water won’t find us. My friend cried as she was scared for her life. I didn’t know what to do except to promise her that we will be okay. A while later, a police van came by asking us to return to our homes. It had turned out to be a false alarm. We went back safe to our houses. We figured the mob was probably triggered by thieves who knew people would flee without locking the doors. Nothing was stolen from our houses though.

This wasn’t the first time our house was flooded. Our two-storey house was once a low-lying single-storey house with an attic. I barely remember the times when heavy rainfall would cause our house to flood. My parents would remove water one bucket at a time until it was water-free. I’m sure my parents have much vivid memories of such times as I was very young, probably less than 10 years of age.

Why did 26 July 2005 happen?

A Fact Finding Committee was set up by the Government to find out what led to this disaster. It wasn’t just the rainfall that caused the disaster.

Old inefficient infrastructure:

Mumbai was once 7 discrete islands: Isle of Bombay, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island (Little Colaba), Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel and Worli. It was only when it underwent major reclamation that we now see Mumbai as one whole city. As mentioned in National Geographic’s series Nat Geo Specials – Mumbai Mega Flood, 65 percent of Mumbai city was originally just water and that it was reclaimed later. To improve the drainage system of this city, a plan was chalked out. It was refused by the BMC committee on the grounds of it being too expensive. Estimated loss after the flood: 450 crore (Rs. 450,00,00,000). 1100 lives were lost in the entire state. Mumbai lost 454 people. I don’t know how much money went into restoration and renewal. Go figure!

Other losses:

  • Cattle deaths: about 2,0000
  • Houses damaged: 250,000
  • Small vehicles damaged: 20,000
  • BEST buses damaged: 2500
  • Trains damaged: 25%
  • Stranded: Millions

In National Geographic’s series Nat Geo Specials – Mumbai Mega Flood, Bittu Sahgal, environmental activist and writer, called it a case of ecological illiteracy. He mentioned how the government failed to take their suggestions seriously. Urban planner Chandrashekhar Prabhu called it a man-made tragedy due to excessive urbanization.

Underestimation of mangrove systems:

Mangroves are types of trees that store water for a short period of time. Destruction of mangroves aided the flood.

Disturbed Mithi river:

Mithi river is a 18 km long main storm water drain for the city. Mithi when translated means sweet. Over the years, this sweet river has been encroached upon by dwellers, dirtied by garbage, polluted by sewage and industrial waste. It’s been disturbed at so many levels. No wonder it turned right on us during the floods. Mithi River Development Authority was set up to take care of this so called ‘dying’ river. Magsaysay Award-winning water conservation activist Rajendra Singh has been salient part of this river’s revival. Measures have been taken to widen this river, remove encroachments and collect garbage.

Is Mumbai danger free?

Not quiet. Other than Mithi river, measures have been taken to combat future floods at other places in the city. These include installation of pumps at certain spots in the city to disperse flood water, de-silting of drains and cleaning of railway culverts. All of this still doesn’t make the city danger free. This is because the work is slow.

Further reading:

Yellow, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay, 2008

Maharashtra Floods 2005, Relief and Rehabilitation, Status report by Government of Maharashtra

Why Mumbai must reclaim its Mithi, a study by Gautam Kirtane, India Water Portal


Green pickle of agriculture

Amidst climate change, oil crisis and the rest, I’ve been recently reading a lot on food and agriculture. Or may be it is just the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon wherein I’m unusually affected by issues in the agricultural sector and everybody else is talking about it too. Take it from the conferences that are held by Planet Forward. I’m going to talk about this conference a bit later in this post. I’m not going to mention the fuel vs food debate here but some of the issues which really caught my attention and they are:

Nitrogen dilemma:

Nitrifying soil bacteria  convert ammonium in the fertilizer to nitrate. This washes away to cause algal blooms. May be we need agricultural techniques that not only view the agricultural woes on a global scale but also locally. ‘Fertilizer trees’ Faidherbia albida, reintroduce nitrogen to the soil, have been shown to quadruple African maize yields in soils with no artificial fertilizer added.

Phosphorus crisis:

From my share of experiences, nitrogen has gained most of the attention, in a good or a bad way. This most definitely has changed for me when I watched a TED talk by Mohamed Hijri who explains how we are running out of phosphorus reserves, that our modern agriculture is thriving upon and offers a simple solution that includes phosphorus fixing mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms, not bacteria unlike the ones we’ve heard that fix nitrogen.

Water pollution in North India due to agriculture:

It’s saddening to see so many people sick and dying of water pollution from agricultural effluents that take the largest share of the wastewater effluents discharged into the Indus river, a whooping 90 percent. The Green revolution is not green anymore. A personal experience exemplifies the ignorance of common people who are not so affected by the contamination. While interacting with a gardening expert in a village, I learnt a few tips for gardening from him. While my dad contemplated on including him in it, I requested the expert to not use any pesticides or insecticides. As I expected, I wasn’t taken seriously. Luckily, we still haven’t started with our garden and I intend to keep it pesticide-free or incorporate natural alternatives like the one used in The Coop Forest. “Use of matka ghat, a very efficient bio-pesticide made from buttermilk and crushed neem, pongamia, and clatoporis leaves replaces chemical toxic pesticides and the cost is less than Rs. 30 rupees a litre,” says Piyush Manush of The Coop Forest in India.


Overdrafting is the excessive use of groundwater. Subsidence is caused due to overdrafting. It is when the floor beneath us can’t bear the weight on its surface. Due to removal of the water that makes the ground stable, it collapses and whatever is on it does as well. Subsidence may be avoided with careful mining, but that doesn’t free us from other consequences described in my blog, ‘Water mining and its consequences‘.

Greenhouse gas emissions:

One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. How do we reduce the agricultural eco-footprint? Are GMO crops a solution? Arcadia Biosciences, based in Davis, California, has taken a gene for an enzyme called alanine amino­transferase from barley and incorporated it into other crops to encourage them to absorb nitrogen before microbes do. Even if it looks like a solution, scientists are worried about biodiversity. If such monocultures are planted on a large scale, an unexpected attack on these can vanish them in a jiffy. Take bananas for example. Nature reports, “A variant of a fungus that rots and kills the main variety of export banana has been found in plantations in Mozambique and Jordan, raising fears that it could spread to major producers and decimate supplies.” It has already affected the 2nd largest producer.

Did you know India is the 1st largest producer of bananas?

People at Peru can exactly tell you why diversity is important and what people can do about it. International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru is all up for saving potatoes, yes, you heard it. Its gene bank has 7,000 potato samples intact. More on this in my blog – ‘GM foods: What’s all the fuss about?

Organic farming:

From a LinkedIn discussion on the blog post on GM foods, I noticed that organic farming, although labor intensive has received greater acceptance than transgenic crops. The very point of it being labor intensive can cure the unemployment woes.

Organic farming is a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost, and biological pest control.

Planet  Forward:

Planet Forward is where experts and engaged citizens come together to find solutions to our shared challenges, specifically in the areas of energy, climate and sustainability. Follow this hashtag for more updates: #foodFWD

Further reading:

Indian agriculture: Issues and Reforms

The Eco-Footprint of Agriculture:A Far-from-(Thermodynamic)-Equilibrium Interpretation