Last week, I attended an international conference on water at the College of Wooster in the United States. Initially, I was apprehensive about attending such a conference as it sounded very scientific; however, very soon I realised why it was important for me to be there as a historian.
Water is the lifeline of most of South Asia. The great river systems of Indus and the Ganges are the life of Pakistan and northern India. Water is also important in ritual in almost all the religions which inhabit the region. From the holiness of the Ganga (but earlier the Indus) to Hindus, to the importance of cleanliness by using water for Muslims, to the bathing before prayers for Sikhs — and the baptism ritual for Christians — water is significant in all religions present in South Asia. In our history, water has been so important that the name “India” is derived from the river Indus, “Sindhu”, and both Punjab (land of five rivers) and Sindh derive their names from riverine channels. Therefore, water forms an important part of our cultural identity too. Especially for Punjab, the establishment of the world’s largest irrigation network by the British in the 19th century brought dramatic development in the province and made it the breadbasket of India and then later Pakistan, and led to a lot of social and political change. More recently, the debate over the waters of the Indus system between India and Pakistan, the 1960 Indus Waters treaty and its associated issues, are still alive topics in the region. With water and water issues so integral to our identity, lifestyle and indeed survival, I realised that the conference organisers were quite right in inviting a historian.
The four days of the conference simply opened my eyes. The issues discussed seemed so far removed from current Pakistani concerns but yet were critical for the future of the country. Several scientists repeatedly underscored that most water-abundant countries of the world will soon become water scarce due to mismanagement. Here, I realised that Pakistan, despite being home to one of the world’s largest river systems, will soon be a water scarce country with less than 1000m3 of water per year per person, down from nearly three times as much 50 years ago. Just imagine that we will soon not have enough water to even drink!
While awareness of water issues might be growing in the country, I realised that we are very ill-equipped to deal with the grave ecological changes surrounding us. At the conference, we met people from a company called ABS systems, which specialises in helping companies clean their water refuse. We saw the company’s own water treatment facility, which purifies rainwater that has run off from its parking lot and covered area. The amount of toxins found in this run-off was shocking and made me think of the large amounts of run-off water during rains and especially during the current monsoon season, which we will simply ignore. Most interesting was University of Minnesota’s Professor Deborah Swackhamer’s keynote address where she argued that not only are the North American great lakes one of the best places to conduct research, they have, in fact, led the way in ecological research. The range and depth of research in the great lakes and its importance for how we understand our ecosystem, atmosphere and environment in general was simply remarkable. For example, Professor Swackhamer recollected how scientists discovered that toxins travel very far in the air when even after DDT was banned in the US, traces were still found of it in the great lakes since it was still being produced in Mexico. I cannot even imagine the various man-made toxins which affect our rivers!
In the end, what was patent was that we need a well-coordinated and integrated approach towards water if we are to survive. The conference brought together scholars from the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, of which FC College is a member, hailing from countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Morocco, Lebanon and Nigeria, together with several great lakes colleges. Foremost in this strategy was the need to create awareness through academic institutions of water issues, especially through the development of relevant courses. Furthermore, scientists need to develop environmentally-friendly, water-focused and collaborative approaches.
Water is a sacred gift, which we must use ethically and preserve. Otherwise, the old saying ‘water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink’ will certainly become true if we continue on this path of self-destruction.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2013.