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Water Woes

May 2008
Water Woes


He was indifferent as he spoke, but his words sent shivers down our spines. Ram Singh, the listless, undernourished watchman of our building, wasn’t exactly one to galvanize anybody unless he was uttering the dreaded sentence: “Water supply stops at 11a.m.”

The words resounded everywhere in the housing complex that was my home during my formative years in India. The entire 44-block building tried to readjust their lives in the next four hours. This humble elixir that is usually an unexciting part of mankind’s daily routine turned into priceless nectar.

New gripes emerged as a result of watchman Singh’s understated bombshell of an announcement. I was promptly charged with spending too much time brushing my teeth; the cleaning maid dwelled too long on every vessel in the sink. Living on the third floor became a tragic drawback considering the inevitable drop in water pressure. If Mr. Tambe and Mrs. Hariharan on the ground floor turned on their bathroom taps at the same time, my soaped-up face had to wait for several annoying minutes before the trickle swelled to a flow again.

This episode from my Indian past, which I am sure many of my compatriots can empathize with, highlights our fickle response to the problem of water scarcity, and our incredible volte-face when our excesses are curbed by scarcity. My complaint, at least for now, is not about man’s self-serving waywardness, it is about one of its victims: water. Water gets the respect it deserves only when there is too little of it to be ill-treated.

We’ve always grown careless in excess and luxury, and not surprisingly, living in American suburbia with its 24-hours of running water, I am often wasteful about my water usage. But through it all, I have always had an undercurrent of concern for this disregard for water that we exhibit daily—even before the talk of the dreaded drought started doing the rounds.

There is a scene in an old Tamil movie where the hero is impressed by the lady at his doorstep who not only manages to wash her face and hands with the water handed to her in a small pot but also both her feet before stepping into his house. She probably got some help from the film editor but that little episode made me think – if needed, we can use water frugally.

There is no better place than the U.S. to illustrate the fact that water is facing an ironic depletion-by-excess syndrome. “I am bad,” admits Jasmine, a graduate student in Atlanta, a city that is facing its worst drought in a hundred years. There are severe restrictions on lawn watering and signs everywhere urging people to conserve water. “I know there is a water problem,” says Jasmine, “I see those signs but how can I connect to it when I get the same amount of water in my tap as I was getting before the drought?” She guiltily admits that she turns on the hot shower in her bathroom and waits till it fogs up the entire room before she enters it. Sometimes, she even keeps the shower on after she is done so her little son can get a warm bathroom when he goes in next. Jasmine feels that she will probably remain undisciplined in her usage of water unless she sees direct consequences. Messages about conservation seem useless unless it hits you where it hurts ¯under the shower!

It is estimated that while half of the world uses an average of 25 gallons per day per person, in the U.S. we use a staggering 159 gallons per day per person. When I landed in this country as a student, vignettes of callous water (ab)use bothered me a lot; like when I saw the water hose running unattended in a restaurant parking lot while the guy using it carelessly chatted away. With time, I grew numb, just like millions of us here?until most of the plants in my backyard died last year, including the more expensive hydrangeas and Lenten roses.

The Atlanta skies had dried up; but my dying regard for water has since shown signs of revival. My mother uses a filled bucket of water to bathe whenever she comes to visit me here. I felt encouraged to note that she did not start wallowing in it when there was an excess of it. Admirably, she had been doing this even before the rain gods deserted Atlanta.

It shouldn’t take a drought for us to start respecting water. At some point in our lives, most of us from India have been exposed to water scarcity. Perhaps we could carry the beacon for conservation, launch a drive or start a chain reaction. Perhaps we could awaken Jasmine, who, like so many others, still cannot relate to the water problem despite the sight of yellowing lawns and cracked soil.

Perhaps I could be the galvanizing Ram Singh who knocks at her door.

[Ajay Vishwanathan is a microbiologist at Emory University. He also nourishes his passion for writing, and is an award winning writer of short stories and poems]

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