In Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli warn us about the dangers of disturbing ecology around water bodies through ill-planned policies

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Water defines life. It is the substance that makes planet Earth unique. More than 71 percent of the surface of earth is water and it is truly the elixir that sustains life. Each and every thing on the planet has a water footprint hidden inside its life cycle, which may not be immediately apparent. In Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities (Penguin Random House), Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli look at the waterscape of the country — from Delhi’s Yamuna to Karnataka’s Cauvery to Rajasthan’s Pichola Lake (Udaipur) — and the myriad ways in which this gift from nature has been grossly violated in spite of the vital role it plays in our lives.

The silver-tinged fall of water over rocks, waves rolling towards beaches, the deep green of a pond glittering with sunlight, dark grey clouds that rain water — these are endless sources of fascination, inspiring people to depict their perspectives through music, art and other mediums of expression. In its benign state, water brings calmness and peace. But today, acrossthe world over today, we are seeing the fury of water — cloudbursts and cyclones that bring torrential rain capable of unthinkable destruction, converting pathways in cities to deep, roaring rivers, mammoth waves that come rushing into beaches to snatch everything on its path, or rain clouds that simply stay away causing the soil to harden and crack as they wait for water to fall from the sky.

The void inside the Earth’s crust

The severe climatic changes that have shortened monsoon cycles, besides tampering with their timing, melting glaciers, rising sea level, are harbingers of the havoc that the presence or absence of water can unleash. In Shades of Blue, the authors use scientific, sociological and anthropological evidence to point out how ill-planned policies and ecological manipulation have resulted in changing the benevolent presence of water into one capable of wreaking havoc in numerous ways.

The authors trace the history of water management in many cities in the country from the time they were small settlements to their transformation as megacities with an ever-expanding population. They recount how the nature-friendly ways of harnessing water through wells, lakes, ponds, and stepwells, created by wise kings, gave way to newer methods of accessing water that did not take into account the ecological cost. As a result, during times of intense rainfall, water floods the land reclaimed from wetlands and ponds because the memory of the landscape cannot be erased.

“To know where a lake once was, Benguluru has only to wait for the monsoon. The Kempegowda Bus Stand, the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, the hockey stadium in Akkithimmanahalli in the city and the Asian Games village in Koramangala, all of which are sites of former lakes, become flooded.”

Rising sea level: A grave threat

Our quest to access to water for our daily activities and agriculture has seen the tapping of groundwater for which pipes are inserted deep into the earth. The authors write: “India relies heavily on groundwater to irrigate its crops — we are the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, taking out more than the next two countries (China and the US) combined.” What is being accessed through these deep pipes forced hundreds of feet down the ground is ‘ancient water’ that has percolated deep into the earth sometime in the past. The indiscriminate access and depletion of this water not only creates a void inside Earth’s crust, but also begs the question of what is being left for future generations.

A recent study reveals that the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater has brought about a subtle shift in the earth’s tilt and this predicts a rise in sea levels in the future. Rise in sea level is already a matter of concern, with melting glaciers and intense coastal storms threatening to take over cities and villages lying along the coast. Nagendra and Mundoli point out that with over 7,500 km of coastline where more than 41 million people live, India will especially be hard hit by rising sea levels. India’s largest and wealthiest cities — Mumbai, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi, Surat and Kolkata — lie along the coast, further underscoring the gravity of the problem for the country.

Water management techniques

The pollution of water bodies with toxic chemicals and medical wastes poses grave problems affecting the health of people. Alexander Fleming cautioned the world about the dangers of antibiotic resistance as far back as 1945. The slow but steady leaching of antibiotics into water bodies through sewage contaminated with antibiotic residues, drug-enriched animal waste, discarded medicines, leads to the growth of drug-resistant microbes in the marine ecosystem.

The food sourced from such ecosystems carries microbes with the potential to cause illness that does not respond to mainstream drugs. Calling antimicrobial resistance a “tragedy of commons,” the authors write, “While the consumption of antimicrobials benefits each of us as individuals, the burden of overuse and misuse of antimicrobials is borne by society. This is our collective problem, for which we need a collective solution.”

Livening up the narrative, the authors recount stories about mythical and real creatures associated with water while also pondering the multitude of organisms or creatures hidden deep within the depths of water unknown to us. Stories relating to the mapping of water, especially the effort taken by colonial powers to map the Brahmaputra without alerting the Chinese, shed light on the sacrifice and bravery of people living in the border areas who undertook the mission to locate the source of the river. The histories relating to the presence and construction of stepwells in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, as well as the graded inter-linked water bodies in Udaipur, Bengaluru, Kolkata offer deep insights into water management techniques practised by our ancestors.

The role of citizen activism

Nagendra and Mundoli also recount how action by ordinary citizens has helped in reviving waterbodies and restoring ecosystems in different regions across the country. In Bengaluru and Chennai, citizen activism has seen the revival of degraded lakes; the cleaning up of the Versova beach saw the return of hatchings of the endangered Olive-Ridley marine turtles after a gap of 20 years, and the efforts to clean up wells in many cities across the country have had heartening results. While touching upon these journeys of water protection, the authors say, “Some of these journeys may begin with introspection on how to conserve water, inspiring action to reduce water consumption…individual actions lead to personal transformations, which then prompt people to take on larger collective challenges such as neighbourhood trash clean-ups and lake restoration.”

Nagendra and Mundoli urge the readers to look at the ways in which sources of water have been managed by our ancestors without disturbing the ecology of the system. While attempting to draw up the trajectory of misuse of the water systems in the modern world, the book points towards the dangers of excessive manipulation of natural resources, especially water. Amidst the unhappy scenario, the authors also highlight the positive outcomes that are possible when people decide to proactively work towards conserving nature so that it benefits all.

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