Monday, March 28, 2016

Running on Empty in the Ganges Basin

Most Canadians live either on or in close proximity to water be it a lake, a river, or an ocean. The availability of water charted the course of our settlement. The St. Lawrence and Great Lakes opened up the eastern half of North America. Canada has 44 rivers more than 400 miles in length and many of them enabled us to open and settle the western half of the country.

Water is life. I live in one of the wettest parts of Canada. Newcomers often find the rain too much to handle but I just think of it as life. Those magnificent, giant trees - water. The snow capped mountains - water. The salmon that spawn in our cold, fast-flowing mountain-fed streams - water.

Most Canadians have little experience of deserts. No, LasVegas doesn't count, that's a man-made oasis. Canada has just one desert, the Okanagan desert of southeastern British Columbia. America has two - the Mojave and the Sonoran desert that extends from the US into Mexico (or from Mexico up into the US).

Before my first motorcycle trip through the Mojave a friend told me that, after the first ten minutes of driving through a desert you've seen it all. Aside from places with the great movie-set geological formations, Joshua Tree national park, that's pretty much right. There's the near constant reek of piss. Truckers carry bottled water to rehydrate and repurpose that bottle to relieve themselves, the end product getting chucked out the window. It's not hard to spot their handiwork, at least the bottles that somehow didn't break. But I digress.

There's a stark beauty to deserts that brings home the fact that everything there - everything - is in a constant struggle to survive. Unfortunately ever increasing numbers of humans will soon be facing that same struggle to survive in a water stressed world.

Just a week ago was World Water Day, the day when we get reminded that 800-million of us have no access to clean water and another 2.5-billion lack sufficient water for sanitation. Two of the most water stressed, water vulnerable countries are the two most populous - China and India. The BBC reports that conditions are becoming dire in parts of India.

On 11 March, panic struck engineers at a giant power station on the banks of the Ganges river in West Bengal state.

Readings showed that the water level in the canal connecting the river to the plant was going down rapidly. Water is used to produce steam to run the turbines and for cooling vital equipment of coal-fired power stations.

By next day, authorities were forced to suspend generation at the 2,300-megawatt plant in Farakka town causing shortages in India's power grid. Next, the vast township on the river, where more than 1,000 families of plant workers live, ran out of water. Thousands of bottles of packaged drinking water were distributed to residents, and fire engines rushed to the river to extract water for cooking and cleaning.

..the evidence about the declining water levels and waning health of the 2,500km (1,553 miles)-long Ganges, which supports a quarter of India's 1.3 billion people, is mounting.

Part of a river's water level is determined by the groundwater reserves in the area drained by it and the duration and intensity of monsoon rains. Water tables have been declining in the Ganges basin due to the reckless extraction of groundwater. Much of the groundwater is, anyway, already contaminated with arsenic and fluoride. A controversial UN climate report said the Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of the current levels by 2035.

Emmanuel Theophilus and his son, Theo, kayaked on the Ganges during their 87-day, 2,500km journey of India's rivers last year. They asked fishermen and people living on the river what had changed most about it.

"All of them said there had been a reduction in water levels over the years. Also when we were sailing on the Ganges, we did not find a single turtle. The river was so dirty that it stank. There were effluents, sewage and dead bodies floating," says Mr Theophilus.

"We would dive into the canal earlier for a swim," says a villager. Not far away, near the shores of the Ganges, fisherman Balai Haldar looks at his meagre catch of prawns and bemoans the lack of water.

"The river has very little water these days. It is also running out of fish. Tube wells in our village have run out of water," he says. "There's too much of uncertainty. People in our villages have moved to the cities to look for work."

It is a concern you hear a lot on the river these days. At the power plant, Milan Kumar says he is "afraid that this can happen again".

"The unthinkable is happening."

Sadly, the unthinkable is happening and not just in India.


Anonymous said...

Anyong said...a bit of a correction: The south eastern part of Alberta is desert including rattle snakes and cacti.

The Mound of Sound said...

I know it's parched grassland but, according to the govt., the only true desert we have is the Okanagan.

The Mound of Sound said...

The Mound of Sound said...

Anonymous said...

Anyong said....I'm not disagreeing with you. The is the environment is getting worse in South Eastern Alberta with very little snow and rain for many years now. There is a desert developing from all the very dry conditions with dust blowing everywhere when the wind blows which is most of the time. People don't seem to care either.

The Mound of Sound said...

No, Anyong, they don't care. For some of them it's as though a blanket of helplessness has fallen over them. Others, usually the angry group, are in denial.

I don't know how old you are but people my age commonly remark that they don't plan to live long enough to see this calamity unfold. They have sort of an Andean fatalism in which they embrace their mortality. I have to confess I am sometimes of that same mind.