Water, water everywhere …

Published: July 1, 2013
The writer is the Chairperson of the Department of History, Forman Christian College, and tweets at @BangashYK

The writer is the Chairperson of the Department of History, Forman Christian College, and tweets at @BangashYK

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.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • ModiFied
    Jul 2, 2013 - 2:01AM

    Importance of water can be understood by the fact that human body is 70% water. It won’t be wrong to say that 70% of our necessities are directly or indirectly related to water. Price of a mineral water bottle is very much comparable to that of petrol in many countries. Indian sub-continent certain need to manage its water resources to look after 1.70 billion people and probably as many number of animals and birds. neither country can address these issues alone. If there is political will, problem can be addressed without much problem. Gujarat state in India has done wonderful work in conserving water.


  • Gp65
    Jul 2, 2013 - 2:30AM

    Going from 300m3 to 100m3 per person is not due to mismanagement but due to population explosion.

    Of. Course there also is mismanagement where water is allowed to flow to the sea without being captured in check dam or through some form of irrigation, water mispricing also leads to misuse of water beyond true needs. While all these forms of mismanagements may not have had any mpact when water was available at 300 cubic meters per capita, it becomes an issue when increased population drastically reduces per capita availability?

    This reduced per capita availability which can be directly attributed to increased population copled with inefficiency in usage has already started to lead to some seasonal problems, which the establishment uses to rile up people with lies about India stealing Pakistan’s water. This whole information has been documented well by Khaled Ahmed. http://tribune.com.pk/story/473751/target-jamaat-ali-shah/

    Every single time Pakistan has taken India to neutral arbitrators with accusations of noncompliance with Indus water treaty, the ruling has been in India’s favour.Recommend

  • Ijaz Abbasi
    Jul 2, 2013 - 8:07AM

    I feel depressed about our water situation. Our disregard for the damage done to the environment is particularly distressing. I personally know of factories that pump polluted water directly into the ground thus polluting aquifers. So at the same time farmers are pumping water from the ground it is being replace by polluted water.


  • Naveen
    Jul 2, 2013 - 11:30AM

    I don’t know about how Pakistan is doing but coming from a farming family on Indian side (state of Haryana), I can tell you that water security condition in Indo-Gangetic Plains of northern India is really bad. In almost all districts of my state, Water table has gone down almost every year for last few decades and agri land is increasing becoming saline due to excessive usage of Tube Wells for irrigation, Fresh surface water channels coming down from the Himalayas are being turned into sewage channels for all practical purposes by the time they cross the big cities. Pesticides and fertilisers are playing their part in polluting the rivers in rural areas. Population increase, rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyle of the people are not helping the matters either. Then there’s the big worry of how Climate Change will impact the feeding Glaciers and monsoon rain pattern. Something has to be done to preserve the water resources and it has to be done urgently on a war footing. But Govt alone can’t do much, Local communities have to be roped in and provided adequate knowledgebase on Water Management.


  • Haroon
    Jul 2, 2013 - 12:09PM

    Excellent article as usual


  • Dinesh
    Jul 2, 2013 - 12:26PM

    Good article. Conserving natural resources for sustainable use is the need of hourRecommend

  • K B Kale
    Jul 3, 2013 - 4:48PM

    Great article! I always love to read Prof Bagssh’s articles. The thin response to this meaningful article reminded me of the famous Parkinson’s Law that states “Time spent on any issue in a meeting is inversely proportional to its importance!” Thus when silly articles on Musharraf generate 50-100 responses, good articles like this will have single-digit responses! What a pity!!Recommend

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