Paula Hanasz goes with the flow of Himalayan rivers as they pass through Nepal, India and on to Bangladesh before releasing into the Bay of Bengal. She illustrates how water affects the lives of ordinary people in South Asia through linkages and trade-offs with food, energy and the environment. This post can also be viewed as a gallery here.
Water is not just liquid. Or rather, water is not just the fluid substance we see in rivers, lakes, and coming out of our taps. That kind of water is called ‘blue water’. But there is also ‘green water’. This is the water that falls from the sky in the form of rain or snow, nourishes the soil and becomes embedded in plants and crops. Nepal is rich in both blue water and green water. Here a farmer in the foothills of the Himalaya near Pokhra, western Nepal, takes a break from harvesting her rice paddy. The paddy is irrigated by an elaborate system of channels and sluices that direct blue water through the terraced parcels of land, converting it to green water in the growing rice.
Rivers support human life, but they can also destroy it. Here, a landslide in north-eastern Nepal killed 156 people in August 2014. The debris from the landslide created a barrage across the Sunkoshi River, forming a large reservoir upstream. The pressure from the water building up behind the barrage threatened to dislodge the debris and send a flash flood down-river. The Nepalese disaster recovery and rescue teams worked hard to dismantle the barrage slowly and carefully.
In urban areas of the Himalaya, water is just as important as in the rural. Here, an elaborate step-well known as a hiti is used as a public bath for a young family in Kathmandu. They have brought with them plastic bottles to fill up and bring back home for domestic uses, such as washing dishes or boiling for tea.
Most neighbourhoods in Nepalese cities will have a hiti, some dating as far back as 570 AD and people use these wells in the same ways they have for centuries. The water comes directly from rivers, springs and natural aquifers, and pours out of an ornate stone spout, usually in the shape of an animal’s head. For many Nepalese, especially the urban poor, these traditional wells are the only source of water because the municipal water and sewage system has not been able to keep up with rapid urbanisation. Urbanisation is also putting the hiti wells at risk because unregulated infrastructure construction and an increase in the number of people relying on groundwater is damaging or rapidly depleting underground ponds and aquifers.
Graffiti of a hiti well-spout adorns a wall in Kathmandu. The same wall supports numerous wires connecting the city’s rapidly increasing population to an already strained electricity grid. Nepal’s inability to produce enough energy to satisfy its domestic demand is a cause of much discontent. After all, the country has vast hydropower potential. There is, some say, enough ‘blue gold’ flowing through Himalayan rivers to make the Nepalese as ‘rich as the Sheikhs of Arabia’ through the export of hydropower to neighbouring and energy-hungry India. But there is a lack of consensus on how best to develop this natural resource. Decades of political and social instability mean that Nepal’s hydropower potential remains largely untapped.
Despite Nepal’s vast hydropower potential, electricity supply throughout the country – even in the capital – remains unreliable and limited. There are rolling scheduled blackouts throughout the Kathmandu valley, and most homes do not receive more than 15 hours of power in any 24 hour period. Of course those who can afford it have private diesel-powered generators, but that is an expensive, unsafe, and unclean source of electricity.
When the municipal power does come on, many people use it to pump water into rooftop tanks. These large, black, round tubs are as iconic on Kathmandu’s skyline as the terracotta-tiled pagoda roofs. The tanks use the force of gravity to release water for the household when there is no electricity or sufficient water pressure in municipal pipes.
In India, like in Nepal, access to reliable water and electricity is limited to those who can afford it. Behind a busy well-lit street in Bangalore lies the black hole of an un-lit slum. Kerosene is the dominant source of light and fuel in shanty towns – and also the main cause of fires and injuries. But the increasing affordability and accessibility of compact solar batteries (which can power not only lamps but also recharge mobile phone batteries) is revolutionising the way these informal communities get safe, clean energy.
Meanwhile, a forest of luxury high-rise apartments is being constructed behind this slum, which also provides the bulk of unskilled construction labour. The apartments will be connected to an electricity grid supplied in part by hydropower and thermal energy sources.
The agricultural sector in India accounts for the largest share of water use in the country – and the biggest water use inefficiencies also occur in common irrigation practices. Subsidised electricity for farmers, combined with accessibility of cheap water pumps has led to a groundwater depletion crisis. Because electricity supply remains intermittent in most Indian states, farmers tend to leave pumps on all night at the ready for when the power comes on. Their fields are flooded (and crops damaged) when the pumps work too long.
Others have found it more profitable to pump up groundwater not for use on their agricultural plots but to sell directly to tankers that then on-sell the water in urban communities without reliable access to municipal water services. For many farmers, alternative or more water-efficient means of food production are not always economically viable, as illustrated by this abandoned greenhouse.
Quality of water is also a chronic problem in India. Here we see the world’s largest outdoor, hand-wash laundry, the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai. Every day, hundreds of washer families rinse, spin and dry the sheets, towels, tablecloths and staff uniforms for the city’s hotels, hospitals and restaurants. They have been doing so for generations.
The water for this enterprise comes from nearby bore-wells – and returns to the ground polluted with detergents, bleach and of course the bio-waste and industrial chemicals that stains the materials being washed.
The poor quality of drinking water in Delhi has profound effects on public health, with waterborne diseases at an all-time high. Most of the tap water in India’s capital comes from the highly polluted Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges.
The lack of potable tap water is driving demand for bottled water – which in turn creates the environmental problem of plastics littering the streets, rivers and parks of India. Empty plastic bottles that are not damaged are often re-filled with regular, polluted tap water and re-sold by unscrupulous vendors. Those who wish to avoid the possibility of contaminated bottled water can still quench their thirst on the go. Fruit juice wallahs like this one in an Old Delhi laneway provide refreshing drinks at a fraction of the cost of bottled water – and without the wasteful plastic.
Once the Ganges River flows into Bangladesh, its primary function becomes transportation. Here, boatmen in Dhaka await customers and cargo to ferry to the other side of the city or beyond.
Water transport is critical in this deltaic country with poor road infrastructure and a booming textile and garment industry. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of western apparel brands, and most of these clothes are transferred from inland factories by river boat to the sea ports for export.
Rivers connect all parts of Bangladesh, even those without road access or government services like this village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts near the border with India and Myanmar.
Remote areas like this are not connected to the electricity grid, and bringing in diesel or kerosene is made expensive by the additional costs of transporting it. Solar power batteries, like the one on this house, are therefore increasingly popular. In rural areas, stalls selling (and repairing) solar panels are popping up like mobile phone stalls did when those devices become affordable for the masses.
The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the home of the Bengal tiger. These vegetated tidal lands trap nutrients and sediment, purify water, provide a storm barrier and shore stabiliser. In addition to the forest produce of the area (such as timber in various forms, and produce like honey and beeswax), the Sundarbans have the potential to be a world-class tourist attraction. A few companies already operate cruises through the mangrove, and here we see visitors enjoying a sunrise near the Bay of Bengal.