Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis
Oxford University Press, 2013
The cover of Dirty, Sacred Rivers shows buffaloes breasting through muddy water, an arresting overhead view that takes a familiar sight and makes one appreciate it anew. The cover image and handsome production of the book lead one to expect that the contents will also bring fresh insight to the muddied, turbulent waterscapes of Southasia. Travelling the entire length of the Ganga, studying the river from a variety of angles, would Cheryl Colopy live up to the promise of providing an acutely analysed and eloquently written account of the Subcontinent’s water problems?
When writing this review, I remembered one of my own encounters with a dirty, sacred river in the city where I live: the Yamuna. At the Jamna Bazar ghat in Delhi, I watched as a man stood in a boat midstream, flinging grainy pellets of food into the water with thousands of birds swooping down to pick them up and fly away. As he moored the boat, the man told me that these black-headed gulls had come from Siberia. He fed them every morning and evening in winter, spending three thousand rupees a day. For him, the Yamuna provided a place for fulfilling the religious obligation to feed itinerants and for expressing a love for lesser creatures.
The river is the site of generous impulses as well as wanton indifference with dumping of untreated sewage and industrial pollutants in Delhi and upstream. As the monsoon season draws to an end, the Yamuna’s true condition is revealed: dark and filthy, with floating plastics and refuse, and a pervasive stench. On the auspicious day of Kartik Purnima in October, I watched in disbelief as worshippers bathed in what appeared to be raw sewage.
Filth and faith may appear to be irreconcilable to outsiders, but Southasians have a sophisticated, centuries-old worldview that lets them live quite comfortably with this paradox.
This is the paradox of sacred rivers in Southasia that has long puzzled visitors to the Subcontinent. How can reverence be reconciled with systematic abuse? Kelly Alley wrestled with this in her 2002 book set in Varanasi, On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River, but failed to grasp the nub of the matter: that the contradiction between the material and the metaphysical worlds is precisely what sustains faith. Mundane events and practices that seem to defy comprehension can be tidily explained by cosmological beliefs, be they about the power of gods or markets or revolutionary parties. So, while from a strictly rational point of view it doesn’t make sense that people pollute the river they worship, by invoking a ‘higher reason’ – the power of the Goddess to shrug off this-worldly irritants and obstacles – they can cheerfully carry on putting faeces, corpses and carcasses, cadmium and lead into the water.
Filth and faith may appear to be irreconcilable to outsiders, but Southasians have a sophisticated, centuries-old worldview that lets them live quite comfortably with this paradox. Nita Kumar, in her 1988 book The Artisans of Banaras: Popular Culture and Identity, 1880-1986, eloquently captured the dilemma this posed for her Western-educated Indian sensibility. On the one hand, she marvelled at the feats of imagination that the people of Varanasi displayed in their richly textured, deeply felt relationship with the Ganga, expressed through rituals of recreation like bahari alang, in which men strolled down to the river to drink bhang, move their bowels, massage themselves with oil, wash clothes and bathe. Yet she also noted her discomfort that this carefree pleasure was circumscribed by religion, caste and gender and excluded “the science of civic order, and of sanitation and waste disposal”.
Kumar’s empathetic, closely observed account of everyday life in Varanasi brings home the larger truth that dealing with contradiction is a universal human condition that takes different forms in different settings. Contradictions and conflicts in Southasia are invariably coloured by the region’s distinctive cultural geography and history, its political economy and spiritual traditions. This is the terrain that Cheryl Colopy explores in Dirty, Sacred Rivers. Colopy is more optimistic than Alley or Kumar when it comes to the filth/faith paradox; she believes that a sense of the sacred “embodies science, an understanding of how things work, and their limits”. Unfortunately, the book provides little evidence to support this belief in contemporary times, either at the metaphysical or practical level. What it does focus on more substantively is the other half of the book’s title: dirty rivers. Or, as the author puts it, dirty, mismanaged and dubiously engineered rivers. The book takes the form of a “water policy travelogue” through the greater Ganga basin, from the high Himalaya to the Sundarban, documenting the myriad ills afflicting the river’s ecosystem and efforts to cure them.
Though it falls short on the kind of insightful analysis that made Patrick McCully’s 1996 book Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams a classic, Dirty, Sacred Rivers is quite informative about the ecological processes underlying South Asia’s current and impending water crises. In particular, it draws attention to the Himalaya as a “third pole”, its glaciers and snows as enormous a vault of freshwater as the Arctic and Antarctic caps. With reports of glaciers melting because of global warming, the future seems to forebode catastrophic floods and droughts from Nepal all the way to Bangladesh. Colopy treks to Tsho Rolpa Lake at the bottom of Trakarding Glacier to take a first-hand look at engineering efforts to prevent the attendant threat of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), which can devastate large areas downstream. After reading this account, which includes a daily diary of her two-week-long journey, one learns in the next chapter that experts like Dipak Gyawali, renowned water scholar and practitioner, regard predictions about melting glaciers and GLOFs as alarmist. Gyawali also points out that climate change creates more extreme weather events such as cloudbursts – the one in Uttarakhand this year, for instance – and monsoon landslides that block streams close to densely populated areas from which impounded water can burst through with devastating power. Priority should be given to studying these phenomena and putting in place mechanisms to limit their destructive potential. This, according to him, is the most important aspect of climate change to affect the Himalayan region. Instead of following this lead, the author goes back to describing another trek to look at the receding Ngozumpa glacier. Much can be gleaned from the book about climate change and Himalayan ecology, but it leaves the reader rather confused about how to organise this data and understand its significance.
Colopy is on surer footing when she writes about Kathmandu, the city where she lived for several years. She describes the ancient system of hiti, step wells that draw water from shallow aquifers, and the customs of community maintenance that developed around them. The accompanying religious rituals express a reverence for the elements fused with a fine-tuned understanding of ecological processes. Ironically, these forms of knowledge, which are now retrospectively certified as ‘scientific’ by modern Western parameters, almost disappeared during colonial times, sidelined by centralised, capital-intensive technologies that were considered superior. The Centre for Science and Environment in its 1997 report, Dying Wisdom, documented the wealth of water harvesting techniques practised in India; Anupam Mishra, Gandhian and gifted writer, described the ingenious means by which water was conserved in pre-colonial India in his superb 1993 book Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (The Lakes Still Hold True), and in the desert state of Rajasthan in the 1994 volume Rajasthan ki Rajat Boondein (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan). Some of the deteriorating hitis in Kathmandu have been revived by neighbourhood committees, an initiative that reflects a welcome trend across Southasia, reversing centuries of neglect. Even though the scale of these efforts is nowadays dwarfed by the hugely expanded demand for water, they represent a crucial step away from depending on large schemes that bring water from far away, often by depriving and displacing other people.
This emphasis on self-provisioning, managing through user groups, and being self-financed would seem laudable if it did not fit so neatly within the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and the ADB.
Colopy describes another attempt at community management of drinking water and sewage by the tiny town of Dhulikhel, but this example raises more questions than it answers. Dhulikhel is presented as an admirable local initiative, funded and managed by willing residents. This is contrasted with the dominant “expertise-led, finance-dominated, technological, centralized, and bureaucratic” paradigm. However, Dhulikhel’s water supply is funded with money and technical assistance from Germany and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Its management committee is elected from those who own private taps, which makes one wonder about poor people who rely on public sources being left out of the decision-making. Bel Prasad Shrestha, the charismatic leader who mobilised people and negotiated with the government and donor agencies, says that, “Waiting for ‘God or the government’ will not get them water. If [people] are thirsty and they need water, they can pay for it and then they will have it. Unless they do this they won’t get water.” This emphasis on self-provisioning, managing through user groups, and being self-financed would seem laudable if it did not fit so neatly within the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and the ADB.
Water is a basic human right that people should have whether they can pay for it or not. Democratic governments have a duty to uphold and expand their citizens’ rights; they need to be pressured to fulfil obligations such as providing drinking water, not let off the hook. It should be mentioned that the same World Bank model of prioritising cost-recovery and conscripting user groups to police their peers into paying up was applied across India through so-called Participatory Irrigation Management and failed spectacularly. A wider understanding of the history of water management policies in the region would have helped the author better understand the complex equity and autonomy issues around initiatives such as Dhulikhel. However, Colopy’s description of the Melamchi project to supply water to Kathmandu goes beyond the ‘government-can’t-get-its-act-together’ critique and sketches the compulsions of foreign aid, which tend to focus on quick-fix solutions. At times, Colopy seems to suggest that aid is itself the problem – distinguished water analyst Ajaya Dixit points to the “corrosive” influence of foreign money on Nepal’s social and political-economic institutions – but, mostly, she treats the aid industry at face value as a benevolent and benign force.
When Colopy leaves Nepal to weave her way through India – chapters address the polluted Yamuna in Delhi, the proposed linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers in Bundelkhand, the shifting course of the Kosi in Bihar, water harvesting in Rajasthan, Ganga river dolphin conservation in Bihar – the narrative becomes sluggish in the manner of a Himalayan river hitting the plains. This is a lot of ground to cover in social and economic territory that the author has little familiarity with and her bewilderment comes through palpably in these chapters, as does her exhaustion from long jeep rides over bumpy roads. The discussion of the disputes around the Farakka Barrage on the India-Bangladesh border is more informative and reiterates that the Indian government needs to be fairer in sharing water with its downstream neighbour. The chapters on Bangladesh deal with arsenic poisoning, whose slowly crippling symptoms became evident in the 1980s, a disease triggered by international aid agencies who sponsored hand pumps that tapped shallow aquifers. The same agencies are now scrambling to distribute water filters, with limited success. The book ends where the Ganga joins the sea, where freshwater meets salt, in the largest expanse of mangroves in the world, a landscape marvellously etched in Amitav Ghosh’s 2005 novel The Hungry Tide. Colopy discusses how the Sundarban forests help insulate people living on the coast from the cyclones that rage up the Bay of Bengal, a task that will become more important as climate change injects greater unpredictability into an already dynamic ecosystem.
This all-encompassing volume offers a little something on everything, including the startling idea that cities and towns should move away from water-based waste disposal through sewage systems to decentralised septic tanks.
While climate change, and the crises it will create and exacerbate, structures the beginning and end of this volume, there is almost no water-related issue that does not find mention in Dirty, Sacred Rivers. This all-encompassing volume offers a little something on everything, including the startling idea that cities and towns should move away from water-based waste disposal through sewage systems to decentralised septic tanks. While an enormous water-saving step – just imagine the millions of gallons of good sweet water we flush away every day only to dispose of our urine and shit – the technology would be impractical in a densely populated, multi-storeyed cityscape. Even more radical for Southasians who flush after defecation is the idea of “eco-san” toilets or dry latrines that collect urine and faeces to use as fertilisers. Common across China, such systems could be promoted more vigorously in Southasia as an alternative to the sewage systems that were introduced by colonial governments. Colopy meets several NGOs who are experimenting with water supply and purification technologies; one would have liked to learn more about why these alternatives remain just
that – experiments – and too often fail to get widespread public acceptance.
To navigate so amiably through the corruption, bad faith and stupidity that characterises water politics is a sign of either credulousness or self-censorship.
Water conflicts and crises in Southasia are important and urgent. A book that makes ordinary readers understand and care about these complex issues would be a tremendous resource. Disappointingly, Dirty, Sacred Rivers is not that book. The content is earnest, middle-brow and entirely bland. Colopy checks all the boxes of ‘good reporting’ – she does her homework, travels indefatigably, diligently interviews experts with different points of view, ordinary people and other ‘stakeholders’. She is conscious of her privileged position as a citizen of the US and unfailingly registers her respect for Southasians. And yet, reading the book felt like trying to swim up a river of oatmeal porridge, a struggle against wholesome boredom.
Dirty, Sacred Rivers is written for Western readers who are unfamiliar with Southasia. To a Southasian, the interminable and flat descriptions of landscape are pedestrian and go nowhere – I would give an example but it would take up too much space. Efforts to provide ‘local colour’ end up being commonplace because of the uninspired writing. Each person interviewed is presented in a formulaic and long-winded manner: Ajaya Jha had “a square, friendly face” and “wore a short-sleeved shirt of brown and white checks with pens in the pocket. His mustache and dark-rimmed glasses made him look very serious when he was not smiling.” Each time Colopy meets someone, she tells us that they were “hospitable” and “generous.” One feels gratified that she found the natives friendly, but all this bonhomie gets in the way of asking probing questions, challenging the claims that informants make, critically examining conflicting statements and facts. It is telling that the author travelled the entire length of the Ganga without coming across a single person she disliked or distrusted. To navigate so amiably through the corruption, bad faith and stupidity that characterises water politics is a sign of either credulousness or self-censorship. Neither quality is compatible with compelling analysis.
The tendency to avoid critical reflection means that Colopy never gets her teeth into a controversy. Claims and counter-claims are presented in a ‘balanced’ manner – he said, she said – with little independent analysis or appreciation of the context. For example, the tale of the Kosi’s shifting course, embankments and floods in Bihar is chronicled without once mentioning the fierce caste-based conflict over land and other resources in the region that exacerbates the issue. The discussion of the World Bank’s abortive “24×7” scheme to supply water in Delhi is so bland that the only conclusion the reader takes away is that ‘it’s complicated’. Journalism need not be explicitly partisan, but should it not help readers to understand an issue and make up their minds? Despite interviewing the most knowledgeable water scholars and activists, Colopy does not arrive at an analytical framework for understanding the cultural politics of water during the course of her travels across the Subcontinent. Without this larger perspective, Dirty, Sacred Rivers is merely a meandering catalogue of water woes and warriors.
Amita Baviskar is a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. Her research addresses the cultural politics of environment and development.