New Internationalist

The water crisis at home

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Water is precious joshme17, under a CC License

The Mudumalai sanctuary, close to my home in the Nilgiris, South India, has been declared drought stricken. As we drove back from Bangalore and into the sanctuary, I noted with a sinking heart the parched, brown grasslands, generally so verdant and welcoming. Very few animals were around; they were searching desperately for water sources. Elephants everywhere have been straying into villages, in search of food and water, causing havoc. In Assam, an elephant was shot dead after it killed four people and destroyed some houses.

My conservationist son tells me that in the old days elephants died because there was no water. Now, apparently, we have a higher than viable elephant population in the Nilgiris because in times of drought, and every summer, the forest department puts out water to save the animals. It has raised the debate: should we intervene to prevent elephants from dying, or adopt a laissez-faire, let nature take its course attitude? That’s material for another entire blog post.

At home I’ve shut down most of my garden. I conserve water, and we have done this through many, many summers, by standing in a flat tub and having an Indian-style bath. We pour two mugs of water to wet ourselves, soap and then rinse off with minimal water, then use the conserved water in the garden. All the washing-up water is saved for the garden, too.

Bangalore, once famous for its mild, salubrious climate, is going through its worst summer in years. It’s unprecedented for it to be so hot mid-March in India. In the Nilgiris, no-one ever used fans. We didn’t need them.  Now, with the mercury rising everywhere, we are told global warming means things will get worse, not better.

Bangaloreans have been asked by the civic authorities to stop taking Western-style showers and revert to traditional Indian balti (bucket) and mug water-saving ways. The younger generation has become used to Western-style luxury. They don’t even know the old frugal ways because India has changed so much in one decade. So will they respond to the full-page newspaper adverts begging Bangaloreans to save their city?

I’ve watched rich folks in fancy city apartments totally oblivious to the water shortage. They pay exorbitant rates for tankers to bring water to their apartment blocks, so consider it their right to use as much as they want. The taps gush water, wastefully, while down the road slum women wait, pots in line, to carry home cooking and drinking water for their families.  We need loads of ‘how to save water’ adverts to educate the new rich, because they are not even aware that they are being wasteful.

Every summer, I watch with sadness my beloved, precious garden drying up. Now I’ve gone on a drive to get plants that survive without watering. Fortunately, the brilliant, vibrant bougainvillea thrives in difficult, arid terrain. I know I’m being trivial worrying about my flowers when there are far more serious issues at stake.

I’ve followed New Internationalist forecasts for decades, predicting that there would be water wars between nations. And in our own state, Tamil Nadu, we have had a decade-long battle with neighbouring Karnataka about the sharing of the Cauvery river water. There’s concern about what will happen if China builds dams which prevent rivers from winding down to us.

So, while I hope that the larger picture, global warming and the world water crisis, is dealt with at appropriate levels, I also hope more and more people, Bangaloreans and others, try to work out innovative, local solutions to save our cities and our water. We don’t have many choices now.

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  1. #1 Abraham Joseph 25 Mar 13

    Dear Mary,

    Kindly use your blog-posts to propagate to the world the naked contradiction between capitalist ways of the world ( the west is trying to teach its worth and merit to the entire world !) and the new ways, lesson and values of ecology: the former says live for one-self, and the latter says if one does not care the 'other', whether it be rivers, mountains, forests, air and most centrally-(the one item yet to be realized and pronounced by the mainstream) the 'other' human being next to you- it will cause natural disasters that would kill
    every one ! please share our blog that describes this need of new philosophy of life:

  2. #2 ludwig pesch 25 Mar 13

    A timely reminder that individuals can (and must) make an effort to minimize waste, to do more with less; and also that denial doesn't solve problem. I remember how scientists alerted us to climate change decades ago, the more conscientious among them admitting that more data were needed to corroborate the causes; yet the threat was going to be imminent and real. Including the potential for aggravating/initiating violent conflicts worldwide you rightly pointed out.
    I remember several hot summers in Chennai when queuing for a bucket of water was a daily source of agony for the women in poor neighbourhoods.
    Little has changed since except perhaps that now it's the middle class that sees its rightful share of water rations siphoned off, literally, to those with sufficient cash. Perhaps this additional stress is needed for the educated to demand long-term policies that make sense and can be enforced.
    Here in the Netherlands the reverse is predicted: unmanageable quantities of water when least needed. But also summer draughts that endanger the safety of earth dikes to contain that extra river water arriving from across the borders (Belgium and Germany). In recent years we have seen the bottoms of drained rivers and canals - bizarre, like having the Sahel at our doorstep!
    And yes, the bucket-and-mug bath is anyway the most refreshing. Deserves a comeback, with or without water shortage!

  3. #3 Prabir 25 Mar 13

    Carbon Diaries 2015 in real life!

  4. #4 Anand 25 Mar 13

    I agree with you. Combination of rain water harvesting, and being frugal in the use of water is very desirable. As far as mudumalai and elephants are concerned, I am not sure whether the forest department can really make a difference. We intervene with few tankers a day, which can save may be a hundred elephants while the population is indeed several thousand elephants.

    Yes, the anecdotal evidence is that overall population of wildlife has increased in Nilgiris. Like your son, I believe we need to strengthen or build contiguous corridors in critical area. After in the larger scheme of things we are the intruders, is'nt it.

  5. #5 Boerje Brandt 07 Apr 13

    Dear Madame or Sir,

    My name is Börje Brandt and I'm situated in Sweden. I have now established a new website for the new innovative water cleaning & recycling system to conserve household water in regions with severe water scarcity. Not for potable drinking water purpose, but if you use water wisely you will have more water to drink. I hope you can share this info to all your colleagues, friends and networks.

    Börje Brandt

    Best regards from Sweden.

    I'm also on Twitter: @BoerjeBrandt

  6. #6 david cohen 16 Jul 13


    I'm belatedly commenting on your March 25 Blog Water Crisis at Home

    I'm prompted to comment because I feel lucky and am surrounded by beauty.

    I am writing from my bedroom of my house where my late wife Carla and I lived for over 39 years. I've had over 42 years here. Parting is such sweet sorrow but life cycles have their own rythym.

    We have had a rainy spring and summer. I was once fond of writing to my children when they were in camp, or in college, that it is raining
    in the Nation's Capitol. It is today.

    I am looking out at my summer lilac bushes and trees that have never
    been so lush or beautiful except when my daughter was married 10 years ago in May. On her wedding day it didn't rain but it did for 27 of the 31 days in May that year, 2003.

    I think how lucky we are. I have been in California during droughts and people complained or should I say whined. We have had occasional droughts in Washington but not often and not severe.

    We are incredibly lucky and that means we have an extra responsibility to not be wasteful and to address in a serious way--and that means politically-- the harmful effects of climate distortion which includes, but is not limited to, global warming.

    So I am filled with memories of times with my late wife, Carla, enjoying our garden and discussing public problems we thought needed addressing.

    In two and a half weeks I will no longer own this house, my home with Carla.

    The memories will always be with me.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC
    July 12, 2013

  7. #7 Mike Davis 04 Aug 13

    Very thoughtful article.

    Simple solution could be to use less water naturally. Here are some helpful ideas for water saving: .

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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