India loves her rivers. At least twenty-five major and hundreds of tributary rivers wind across the landscapes and landforms of India, bringing colour and pulsating life into the red soils. Without water, India would be a very different land. The climate and landscapes depend wholly on water – on the rivers, and on the seasonal influxes of rainfall in the guise of the Indian monsoon. For three to four months in an otherwise- parched year, the earth gladly opens its pores and greenery spreads its wings across the land, from the Coromandel coast in the south to the monsoon mountains of the Western Ghats, from the advancing desert of the northwest to the remote beauty of the Himalayan foothills, from the elephant jungles of the northeast to the Deccan Plateau spreading across central and south India. The riverbanks brim and cascade over the brown fields, bringing light to the lives of farmers whose crops will now last for another growing season.

Yes, water is vital to each living atom in India, and our rivers bring us this water. They are bearers of a gift more precious than gold. India’s rivers stem from two sources: the monsoons, and the highest mountains in the world – the Himalayas. Himalayan rivers originate in glaciers in the snow peaks. They cascade stormily down the steep, incised river valleys, carving ancient paths that never run dry. Some, the Ganga and the Yamuna, the divine river goddesses, split into multiple powerful rivers in their haste to wet the land. Mighty and yet soft; cruel in their floods, yet merciful in their giving – these great mountain rivers have carved India’s legacy. India’s rice bowl – its agricultural fame – are owed to the rich alluvial floodplains of these river goddesses. Thousands gather at their banks to cleanse their souls of sins. At Allahabad, three rivers come together – the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical, once-majestic Sarasvati. Three goddesses meeting on earth. In the South, the Kaveri is the river goddess supreme; she originates in the Western Ghats of Karnataka and escapes into the sea in the Kaveri Delta of Tamil Nadu.

And yet, we thoughtlessly wreak havoc on these rivers of life. Pollutants, sewage, urine, and faeces – we treat these life-giving waters no better than dump grounds or landfills. Everything in the human existence can be found in India’s rivers: ashes, garments, toys, broken dreams, abandoned wishes. From rivers we spring, and to rivers we go, at least in the Hindu philosophy. Then why do we allow these waters to be so desecrated?

Devotees bathing in the Ganga at the holy city of Haridwar, Uttarakhand (P.C. P. Ranganathan)

Rivers are unpredictable, given to mood swings and sudden fits of rage. An angry river is truly a sight to behold. With an elephantine roar, the water swells and crashes over boulders, rumbling deep within its depths, sweeping up bacteria, mud, and elephants alike. An angry river can swallow an entire village, decimate crops, and take lives with a ruthless glee. I have grown up respecting rivers. I have grown up seeing the anger of rivers. Every time, it fills me with a bone-deep chill of reverence. To see the same river that had licked my bare toes cheerfully just hours ago now pour over rocks like a rippling, deep-brown python is eye-opening. In the summer of 2013, the north Indian state of Uttarakhand faced the wrath of the Ganga when tumultuous floods destroyed towns, villages, and reclaimed land that had once belonged to the river goddess. And as easily as they can flood, rivers can vanish. They dry up, leaving tear tracks in the earth. And this is a phenomenon that is becoming alarmingly common in our rapidly changing world. When once water was plentiful, now, people must resuscitate the rivers that once gave them life. It is sad, to see people begging a river to flow once more. To see one of nature’s most powerful forms dying, and being returned to life, by the same force – the human ego.

I am not an environmentalist, nor am I a social scientist. I am a blend of scientific understanding and human empathy that makes me call myself a conservation ecologist. In childhood, I spent barefoot days in the sun, watching birds and snakes and lizards. I learned to respect life at a tender age. My first pet was a water frog, and the first wild animal I held was a python. Wild spaces are very much a part of me, and a love for rivers flows deep in my veins. I was born in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, where the rivers run choked with oil and chemicals. Mumbai – where water is simultaneously celebrated and feared. Mumbai lies on the Arabian Sea, and it is the rising sea levels that most threaten this city of mine. Water, threatening to reclaim what humans once laid claim to. My city was dredged from the sea, and to the sea it will likely return. Am I a fatalist? No, but I am not one to deny nature its vengeance. Nor am I one to discount human suffering that stems from environmental issues, which is why it is so important for us to pay attention to our dying rivers. No longer can we afford to ignore the pollution around us, nor the continued wastage of what is arguably our most precious resource on this planet. There were days when I trekked through the semi-arid desert edges in Rajasthan and could not see a drop of water in sight. The spotted deer and the tiger alike lay in whatever understory was still remaining, their eyes the only pools in the parched landscape. Entire villages are forced each year to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, following the rainclouds and retracing the path of retreating rivers. The Banas River, in eastern Rajasthan, is a seasonal tributary of the Chambal. During the blistering summer months of May through July, I walked on the riverbed, kicking up sand and rock. Pugmarks of tigers told a tale of thirst, and skeletal remains of deer, stripped of flesh by vultures, warned of the power water has over our lives.

On the banks of the Ganga at Hrishikesh, Uttarakhand (P.C. H.G. Purkey)

I have played in the waters of many Indian rivers. The Ganga, the Yamuna, the Alaknanda, the Chambal, the Banas, the Kaveri, and the Narmada – these names come to mind. Countless other tributaries and I have made acquaintance over the years as well. There are rivers that I am yet to visit – the Brahmaputra raging through East India and Bangladesh. The Teesta, River of Sorrow, originating in the high mountains of Sikkim. The Godavari, lazy and catlike in the depths of the Deccan Plateau. And so many more. But the more we desecrate our rivers, and the more we continue to affect the climate, the less certain I am that I will meet these great rivers. As the climate warms, India’s rivers are all put under threat. Half of the rivers are fed by the annual monsoon rains; the other half stem from Himalayan glaciers. Both the monsoons and the glaciers are at risk from climate change. As the troposphere warms, the patterns of monsoon cloud formation and air circulation currents are altered, changing the intensity, timing, and geographic location of the monsoon. We are already seeing the effects of this changing phenomenon. Weak (“failed”) monsoons spell doom for agricultural communities and the Indian economy at large, given that 60 percent of the economy depends on agriculture, amounting to 20 percent of total GDP[1]. A shifting monsoon would mean a shift in the growing season for many crops, altering the way agriculture is managed across India. In contrast, the glacier-fed rivers of North India are at risk of drying up permanently as their glaciers melt with increasing speed. The Gangotri glacier, from which stems the Ganga, is retreating at a rate of 10 metres per year[2]. I wonder what India will look like if this 30-km long glacier succumbs to climate change and the Ganga halts her flow. India without the Ganga will be unbearably parched.

We are seventy percent water, and can only survive six days without this life-giving drink. Yet, in perhaps one of the strangest paradoxes of mankind, we continue to waste and pollute water despite depending wholly upon it for survival. Great indeed is the human folly. But also great is the ability that humans have to apply ourselves with full vigour to a cause we believe in. Wars have been fought, kingdoms have risen and fallen, great heroes have influenced our minds and changed our hearts. But now we are facing one of the direst threats to our survival on this planet, a cause that will one day spark wars if we are not careful – a growing scarcity of water. H20. Three atoms that have the power to end our time on the planet if we do not act now. After all, man has found ways to survive without flowing air, without fresh food, without shelter, but no man thus far has found a way to survive without fresh water. And maybe that’s a sign.

[1]  Toman, M. A.; Chakravorty, U.; Gupta, S. (2003), India and Global Climate Change: Perspectives on Economics and Policy from a Developing Country, Resources for the Future Press (published 1 June 2003), ISBN 978-1-891853-61-6

One thought on “Land of Rivers

  1. Your blog is full of wildlife and well nature. you seem to know quite a lot about it and you ofc love it. so, are you like also working in this field?


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