Fifteen years ago in the arid western state of Rajasthan, India, I was visiting a city Bikaner. Home to some magnificent forts and delicious sweets, it also had an agricultural university. It is here that I met a professor Dr Joshi (I regret forgetting his initials). I wanted to discuss the impact of a canal that was built cutting through the desert region bringing much needed water to the parched land. During the course of our discussion he suddenly came up with a provocative sound bite. “River valley civilizations tend to perish, but the desert civilization persists and overcomes the rhythms of rise and fall.”
He was deadest against construction of the canal in the region and rattled out a list of ills that new water source has brought. His main lament was it made farmers profligate which resulted in over use of water. It turned fertile land barren due to increased salinity. He argued that copious amount water injection in sandy soil led to capillary action which threw up salt from the depths of soil on to the surface.
He said when the canal wasn’t built farmers were circumspect in using water and also applied their brains in using crops that needed little water. Since canal was built the false notion of abundant water fueled a race to plant water intensive crops that weren’t the staple of the area leading to the present crisis.
The professor was forceful and dominating in his arguments and intellect. So at that time I didn’t respond but wasn’t convinced about the outlandish claim he had made. His claim nevertheless made me think of the problem and I started gathering information on the history of river valley civilizations of India and its neighbours.
I found out the Indus Valley civilization perished, so did another one which survived along a now extinct river that began from the Himalayas crossed the state of Haryana and Rajasthan and ended in Arabian Sea. Many in India believe it was the lost river Saraswati but there are no conclusive proofs about its name. I found out that the civilization in Mesopotamia along Tigris and Euphrates also vanished.
Among plethora of reasons for their extinction, a running theme in all the tragic stories was water shortage and collapse of irrigation systems. What seems astonishing to me is the fact that Mesopotamia had a very sophisticated irrigation system built around canals. Similarly, in India both the mighty rivers, Indus and the one that became extinct, provided enough for surviving and thriving. Yet they perished without a trace.
Today, one of the most populous river valley civilizations on the Earth, thriving in Indo-Gangetic plains of India along the rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, are suffering from the same ills that their forefathers suffered. Cities along both the rivers suffer from acute water shortage, rampant destruction of water bodies, rising pollution and a spiraling demand that is getting out of hand.
All the water supply systems are decaying due to overuse and extreme stress.
Yet they are just symptoms and not the cause. I was curious to know the cause of why river valley civilizations have a tendency to follow a predictable path of taking root along a river, grow in size, prosper, reach zenith and then decline.
No amount of research and interaction was yielding a satisfactory answer. There were many compelling arguments like over use, wastage, pollution, over population etc but the clinching argument was still missing as far as I was concerned.
Then one day I saw the gardener in my apartment leaving the water pipe in the lawn with water flowing from it. Four hours later when I returned I saw the water still gushing out of the pipe. The scene repeated for three to four days. Then one day I confronted him and asked why was he wasting so much of water when just half an hour of watering the lawn is enough. He said there is enough water and it doesn’t matter whether I keep the tap open for half an hour or four hours. When their will be shortage then we’ll see what can be done, why are you looking so bothered?
His answer came to me as an epiphany. Secured in the belief that there was enough, oblivious of the fact that water resource was under stress, he was wasting water. False belief in plenty was fueling profligacy. And this to me was the root cause of courting disaster generation after generation, civilization after civilization.
Ironically, a couplet prevalent in the Indo-Gangetic plains does caution its residents. It says as the water level rises the lotus stem rises too, but when the levels recedes the stem doesn’t and is condemned to perish.
However, couplet and its warning notwithstanding, I think, it is in the nature of things that getting used to abundance, the society that develops unknowingly slips into a habit of profligacy. They only realize their folly when the tide of time and circumstances has firmly turned against them.
This is where people living in water scarce zones score over people living along the rivers. They respect the precious resource and are careful in using it.
Respecting the fact that natural resources are limited and frugality of its use are the hallmarks of sustainability. That is why the profligate will perish due to their inherent unsustainable lifestyle choices.
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