Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the Lust for Water

After an hour-long ride from Gandhinagar to Ahmedebad, I am coated with dust and grit. I desperately want to wash my face. The building where Kalapi uncle lives is one of several in the Azad or “Freedom” compound. The rows of concrete buildings remind me of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. The first time I went to visit him, I thought, “My uncle lives in the projects?” Inside, however, the apartment is conspicuously clean and well-kept. Kalapi uncle asks if I want to freshen up as soon as I walk in. The two-bedroom unit has one bathroom. I turn the faucet and nothing comes out. Not a drip. There are two buckets filled with water in the corner. Water for the day. I want to take off all my clothes and dump both buckets over my head. I know that I can make do with a cup full of water to wash my face, but I want to consume it all.

My father and Kalapi uncle grew up in a small town together. My father became a physician and immigrated to the United States. Kalapi uncle stayed behind in India and worked for a bank. He was the artistic cousin-brother. In the apartment, he played a cassette tape of Hariprasad Chaurasia performing Megh Malhar while we drank tea. He sprinkled the conversation with verses of Gujarati poetry, which were lost on me. His daughter chose the science and engineering track, though. At the time of my visit, she worked with India’s space agency at their headquarters on Satellite Road. In the corner of her bedroom, I could see her computer. It looked like a second-hand 286, but she had it covered with a sheet of plastic to protect it from the dust. I could not make sense of their situation. How was it that they had educations, solid middle-class jobs, and just two buckets of water to last them a day?

Gujarat, the area of India where my family lives, was in the middle of two years of drought when I visited in 2002. Over the five months of my stay, I got an education in water scarcity. A whole vocabulary – water tanks, tube wells, bore wells, step wells, pumps, bunds, catchment ponds, Bisleri, and Aquafina. I came to recognize rivers where there was only a long stretch of cracked earth. Rows of eggplants where there was only a parched field. Temple ponds where there were only dusty, old steps. I memorized the times of day and night when the city would most likely let the water flow through the pipes, for half an hour or fifteen minutes. Sometimes the water never flowed. In 2000, the drought got so bad that water had to be brought in by a train and tanker trucks to the city of Rajkot, where my cousin Dr. Jatin G. Buch lives. People said it was the worst drought in 100 years. Wells that had functioned for generations no longer yielded water, because the ground water levels dropped and weak monsoons had not replenished the supply.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the average water use per person per day in India is 135 liters or 35.6 gallons, whereas the average in the United States is 575 liters or 152 gallons, more than four times the Indian rate. These figures mask huge variations. People in Phoenix, Arizona use more than 1,000 liters of water per day to keep their lawns green, more than seven times the Indian rate. Villagers in Gujarat, especially those in the Saurashtra and Kuchchh regions, use far less than 135 liters per day. Women there often have to carry their water on their heads to their homes. Carrying 1,000 liters for a family of seven on one’s head is out of the question. That would be 455 pounds.

There are tricky questions of how water use is measured, by person or household, domestic use or total use. The average single family usage calculated by the American Water Works Association is just 262 liters of water per day or 69.3 gallons, but that does not include water used in offices and commercial establishments – the water in the coffee at Starbucks, the fountain outside the office building, the beautified highway medians watered by automatic sprinklers.

I cannot stop at comparing averages. They are not enough for me. I am thinking of my family. I need to understand the material difference between my life and theirs. I stay with them in their homes. We drink tea and eat kakra together for breakfast. We eat pau bagi for lunch. We fold up our feet under our legs when a woman comes in the afternoon to sweep the floors. They ask me what I think of microwaves, if they really do help prepare food more quickly. We compare our lives relentlessly. You make more money, but we have the closeness of family. You have every kind of food available in the grocery stores, but it will never be as fresh as our market vegetables, as the ladiwalla’s karela. These comparisons are a fundamental part of our lives. A daily calculus even when we are continents apart. The comparisons give us insight into what it is that we even want from life, but they can crush the soul. Every aspect of experience is on the table – familial bonds, leisure, access to jobs, physical stature, mobility, water.

According to our own water bill, MaGreen, Grasshopper, and I each use 66 gallons per day at our home in Houston. I am not sure how I use my 66 gallons. We do not water our lawn since the green goddesses do that pretty well for us. Now that the baby is nearly potty trained, we don’t need to wash many diapers. My showers are not that long. No hot tub. I suspect that our regular use of the dishwasher, the washing machine, and the toilet flushing are the main culprits. None of my family in India use those appliances. The woman who sweeps does the dishes and the wash by hand. They used eastern, “squatting” toilets that take a small splash from a bucket to flush. (The toilets in the US seem to flush with a vengeance, as if the excrement must be made to feel that it can never return.)

During our last trip to India, I asked my cousin Malay how much water his family uses, but he does not know because they pump it out of a well. Though they live in a city, the municipality does not supply them water. Malay did show me was his rain harvesting system. The roof is slightly tilted to channel water into a pipe that deposits it into their well. “We live near to the sea,” he said, “so if we use too much water the entire supply will become salinated.” This civic sense seems to be missing in the United States, the idea that we all must take some responsibility for our shared resources.

I remember going on a trip with my parents to Arizona. As we drove by the green lawns, I criticized the gross misuse of water in the desert and I expected my parents, having experience water scarcity as children, to back me up.

They said, “The desert should be made green. Why leave it undeveloped? Gujarat should learn from Arizona. Environmentalism is fine, but they want to stop dams before India has a chance to develop.” Although my parents immigrated to the US over thirty years ago and have lived outside longer outside India than they did in it, I began to see that their sentiments were shared by many Gujaratis and that civic mindedness can be claimed by people on opposing sides of the same issue.

In 2006, the Gujarat government raised the level of its Narmada river mega-dam to 120 meters. The estimates of people displaced by the project range from a few thousand people to one million. Several villages of “adhivasis” or tribal people were submerged by the water. However, water is flowing through an elaborate canal network from the dam to urban centers and villages all over Gujarat. The government claims that the value of agricultural production increased by one hundred percent in a single year.

One river has been killed to revive others. The tribals have lost their ancient way of life, but the Sabarmati, which runs through Ahmedebad, flows all year now. I wonder what Gandhi, who was Gujarati, would think. Would he accuse us of lust for water? In Gujarat, he seems to be an unwanted conscience. An honored but resented memory. When I went to Gujarat during the drought, you could hear the lust for water. It was a gurgling sound in the empty pipes and under the dry riverbeds. How much water does it take to slake the lust? Is sixty-six gallons even enough? The logic of our lust for water is cruel. It is not to be measured by volume but in units of compassion and desire.

Water is supremely practical. It is a clean pair of pants. A glass of water. It is a washed, smiling baby. But at another level, I am not trying to secure adequate water. I want the water dripping from the woman in soap commercials on television. I want the mystique of water rushing through a machine, water splashing our already clean dishes over and over and churning our unstained clothes. I want the water in our water heaters hot even when I am miles away at work. I want to know that the damn is there, a sea of our own making. That we can transform the land, make it wilt or make it green.

I went back to India a few months back. My cousin Amit had bought a washing machine and installed Western toilets. He asked me if I wanted to freshen up and showed me his new bathroom. There was a bucket in the corner for taking a dhol bath. “We have a shower too,” he said. “And don’t worry about the water, you can take a shower like you would at home.”


Fiddler said...

Some years ago, my children and I chose to live in a cabin with no running water while we built our house. We carried water from a spring for our daily use... we showered from a solar bag and found that 5 gallons could indeed give two people a lengthy shower and shampoo or three people a decent well-rationed shower sans shampoo... We did laundry at my mom's... We used a 5 gallon container for drinking and cooking water... When we did dishes, we were very careful and could manage with only two containers (one sudsy and one for rinsing). We didn't measure amounts out, we were more interested in the aspect of the joy of conservation than in accounting for actual amounts used and saved. I'll mention that my children were all in high school at the time, and this lifestyle was not the "norm" of the neighborhood but we had probably the best summer of our lives. We spent a lot of time sitting beside a campfire under the stars, and we took turns filling the solar shower bag for one another. Years later, now, I am still mindful of water and how easy it is to be conservative when your mind is attentive... Anyway, I liked this post and wanted to share that it is possible to be joyfully mindful of conserving all our resources :)

Henitsirk said...

If you want a really mind-boggling read about water use, read this:

I found it somehow while doing research. Makes me kind of ill to read that rainwater isn't free for the taking.

I must admit I've become even less water conserving here in NY. We get rain or snow every month of the year, in contrast with CA where there is definitely a short rainy season amid the long arid months.

My husband has often scoffed at the idea that water can be "wasted" because the water never leaves the enclosed ecosystem of the Earth. While that's true, I think it's important to remember that the problem can be when the water doesn't come to a particular area, like Gujarat in a drought. Then definitely in a local sense water can be wasted.

GreenDaddy said...

Fiddler, I think your story of the summer in the cabin is lovely. I'd like to try that. And I'm glad you didn't actually measure everything out. It's enough to know that you carried your water.

Henitsirk, I read the thing about Colorado law on rain barrels being an offense. That is mind blowing. My post didn't get into why water conservation might matter differently in different areas. That's pretty key. But honestly, I don't know enough to write about that. My impression is that the average water use in the US is so high that it burdens ecosystems everywhere. Apparently, the north side of Houston is sinking because we are using the water under the surface.

SummerM said...

I've been trying to reduce our water use a lot so this was a timely post. Water is such a precious commodity, one that most people take for granted.

Lulabelle said...

I really enjoyed this post. I've been intensely interested in water conservation for a few years now and it's amazing how little we understand about water's real value as we let the tap run and run and run. Groundwater is actually not considered a readily renewable resource due to the huge amount of time it takes rainwater to percolate back down through the soil, regaining its pure, drinkable state. Only 2.5% of water on the earth is fresh water - which is astounding.

I've been working on an educational project involving water conservation and there are so many easy things we can do - use a water butt at the end of rain gutters for watering the garden, put a brick in the toilet tank to reduce the water level, and use a bowl to wash veggies - which are only a few things.

Water crises have risen in many areas of the world, and I think that will spread in the years to come - to affect people who never even thought about it before.

chuck said...

brick in the toilet tank: check. thanks, lulabelle!