[Interview] In ‘Shades of Blue’, ecologists explore the murky future of India’s urban waters

  • With a focus on each major Indian city and its unique water bodies, the book, Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities, examines the relationship of cities with their water.
  • After writing about trees in the cities in an earlier book, the authors, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli who are professors and ecologists, have turned their lens on another key natural resource in urban areas: water and its management.
  • Urging a revisiting of definitions and colonial practices still prevalent, the authors insist that it is people and their active participation that help save and protect urban waters.

Close your eyes. Now imagine that you are seated next to a stream that is at walking distance from your home. The slow guzzle of its waters helps you unwind after a long day at work. Or imagine that when you feel the need to go for a swim, you don’t go looking for the nearest swimming pool but make your way to the nearest pond, where its unsullied waters welcome you with open arms. Can you dial back to a time when backyards were adorned with wells whose waters served all the household needs?

Depending on where you are, you may find these situations incredulous, or you are hit with immense nostalgia. Either way, you know that the water bodies of India are nowhere close to what they were once. In their new book Shades of Blue; Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities, authors Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli break down the country’s water woes to the last drop while taking us on a cruise through bustling cities, through time and through varying shades of blue to deliver a compelling narrative on water conservation.

Faculty members at the Azim Premji University, Nagendra and Mundoli have previously authored the book Cities and Canopies; Trees in Indian Cities. If Cities and Canopies made you look up and marvel at the trees on your streets, Shades of Blue will make you look around and lament at the state of a nearby lake, or the lack thereof.

Shades of Blue by Penguin/Viking. Book cover design from the publishers.
Shades of Blue by Penguin/Viking. Book cover design from the publishers.

Between its 300-odd pages, the writers tackle a number of water-related concerns – the unplanned growth of cities, the disastrous effects of water pollution, the disappearance of wells, what’s at stake with river-interlinking projects, what are the hidden costs of building dams and how water bodies provide refuge to several species thereby highlighting the ripple effects of human actions.

Exhaustively researched, the book brings forth the known and the unknown by weaving together interesting stories, bits and pieces of history and a dash of folklore. But throughout the book, Nagendra and Mundoli never steer away from the core message, enunciating a sense of urgency when it comes to implementing sustainable strategies to conserve water and build better urban systems to preserve natural water sources.

One of my favourite parts in the book was a chapter on secret river mapping expeditions. During the colonial period, members of the mountain communities were trained and sent as spies across borders to map rivers and study their origins. These explorers took on arduous journeys that spanned several years, but they are rarely mentioned in narratives about the river systems.

According to NITI Aayog, currently, more than 600 million Indians face high-to-extreme water stress. The think tank predicts that by 2030, India’s water demand will be twice the available supply. In this edited interview, the authors of Shades of Blue share their thoughts about the ongoing water crisis and the writing of this book.

Harini Nagendra (L) and Seema-Mundoli (R), authors of Shades of Blue. Photo from Harini Nagendra.
Harini Nagendra (L) and Seema Mundoli (R), authors of Shades of Blue. Photo from Harini Nagendra.

Mongabay: What made you embark on this journey to document the water bodies of India’s cities and the ground realities of our water woes? 

Harini Nagendra: The idea came from our publisher, Penguin, who initially asked us if we would be interested in writing a book on rivers in India. We decided to take a wider lens and write about water in Indian cities. While the approach is similar to Cities and Canopies, it differs with respect to the treatment. There, we focused on one iconic tree for a city and a related theme. Here, we decided to focus on specific themes. For every two themes we cover, we address various issues using specific cities as examples, helping the reader to engage with the topics more deeply.

Seema Mundoli: Regarding the choice of the cities — we focused on various places to highlight different types of water bodies. For example, we write about Delhi because it has a river running through the city. Kolkata came in due to its salt lakes and wetlands, Mumbai as an example of a coastal megacity, Bengaluru as a historic city of tanks and reservoirs, Chennai because of its interconnected river, canal and tank systems and Kavaratti city in Lakshadweep as an example of an island that is rapidly urbanising. We tried to show the different water bodies a city depends on with these examples.

Pukurs or ponds of the East Kolkata Wetlands. Photo from Harini Nagendra.
Pukurs or ponds of the East Kolkata Wetlands. Photo from Harini Nagendra.

Mongabay: In the chapter on Mumbai, you write about how the city was once a group of seven islands and the marshy wetlands between the islands were considered ‘wastelands’ that propagated diseases. This nomenclature made it easy to reclaim these marshes for land. Does this outlook on certain water bodies being ‘wastelands’ continue to hamper our awareness about the ecosystems and how can we change the mindset?

Seema Mundoli: It’s important for us to understand where this terminology stems from. Look at any archival information from colonial times, whether it is water bodies or green spaces and you will see that they introduced the term ‘wastelands’, thereby making it easier to reclaim the space. The fact is that these were not wastelands. In the case of Mumbai, some of these water bodies were being used by the Koli fishing communities. Or if you take spaces around lakes in Bengaluru; they were used by local communities for various purposes like cattle grazing, fishing, agriculture, etc. But for the British, any ecosystem that did not contribute to direct revenue was considered a wasteland. Even today in India, there are common lands that are accessed and used by people. But what we have is a national atlas for wasteland. The terminology has worked to the detriment of local communities that have depended on these spaces.

Harini Nagendra: One thing we’ve seen consistently with water bodies is that people often dump waste into it, and then it literally becomes a wasteland. To change this mindset, we have to think about how people use these spaces. If there is continued local dependence on them, not just for recreation but for essential daily use, people start valuing them more. In Bangalore, you clearly see this pattern. When pipe water came in, the lakes began being considered cesspools of waste — that’s how they were referenced in colonial records. When peripheral Bangalore started to expand, but river water supply had not come in, communities actively worked to conserve and protect the lakes. This is why restoring the loop of local dependence is very crucial. The work done by architect P.K. Das in Mumbai is also an example of this. Working with local communities, he has converted seafronts into public spaces used by thousands of people for various purposes, thereby protecting these regions. In Carter Road seafront, their work has regenerated the mangroves that were previously used as a dumping ground for waste. Building thriving public spaces is an essential step towards awareness.

Mangroves at Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo by Saumitra Shinde/Mongabay.
Mangroves at Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo by Saumitra Shinde/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Based on some of the examples given in the book, it feels like most water conservation projects are primarily citizen-driven. Why do you think that is the case and how can people be more involved to protect their water sources? 

Seema Mundoli: Water conservation is a complex issue. With large rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna, the complexity is even more confounded as they traverse thousands of kilometers across states. It requires funds, a committee to oversee the activities, and massive involvement from people and various organisations. But bringing people together in a consensus is comparatively easier when you look at lakes, tanks and smaller water bodies. It doesn’t mean that these initiatives will always be successful, as several factors are involved. Our chapter on Water Warriors shows that water conservation projects are usually spearheaded by one or two people who are resilient and can engage with the system and the community to bring change.

Harini Nagendra: With respect to the second part of your question, whether it’s a tree or a lake, we often get asked – how can I be involved? I don’t want to be an activist or protest, so what can I do?

Something that Seema and I focus on a lot is identifying ways in which people can reclaim their connection to water. We unthinkingly consume and abuse water as a resource. So, building awareness is a first step. And then there are so many other things that one can do. For instance, knowing where your water comes from or learning about recycling and other initiatives in your neighbourhood. People could also survey the water bodies in the locality. They could talk to the government agencies in charge and find out how to initiate restoration activities. One could write articles or work with school students and clean up a nearby lake. There are so many ways in which people can be involved, all the way to activism. If you take the Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru as an example, filmmaker Priya Ramasubban saw a notice in the newspaper that the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the city’s municipal corporation) planned to rejuvenate the lake. She approached a few of us and we worked with the government agency to transform the water body. So, keep an eye out for such collaborative opportunities. We often don’t realise that the government is looking for community support.

While water conservation might start with individual transformation, it shouldn’t end with individual action. This way, it can have far-reaching impacts. When you work with a group of people, it stops you from feeling depressed or feeling that the problem is insurmountable. It’s so much easier to overcome challenges when people work together.

Lake rejuvenation projects often prioritise recreational use that alienates communities dependent on the wetland. Unscientific approaches such as concretising of lakebed are damaging too. Photo from Harini Nagendra.
Lake rejuvenation projects often prioritise recreational use that alienates communities dependent on the wetland. Unscientific approaches such as concretising of lakebed are damaging too. Photo from Harini Nagendra.

Mongabay: Access to water in cities is a complex issue. Those who need it the most are often deprived of it the most. How can we make water availability a priority when we plan urban infrastructure? 

Seema Mundoli: The fundamental issue is that some of us have too much water, and some don’t. The imbalance often leads to misuse. The dichotomy is stark in cities like Bangalore, where there is a significant water shortage issue. In my apartment, for example, the water from tankers is used to fill the swimming pool. And then there are people living in communities nearby, where they get water for only a few hours a day. Clearly, our water distribution needs to be reassessed. While we don’t advocate putting a price on water, in the case of surplus, it may be good to have a meter system to ensure judicial use of water. It’s important for us to realise that the onus to conserve water is on us.

Harini Nagendra: We should also think of short-term and long-term ways to make water more accessible. In the short term, equity takes precedence over sustainability. In many parts of Karnataka, we now have water ATMs that provide drinking water purified through RO plants. While ROs are not great for sustainability, people across the state are using these ATMs and it has made an enormous difference. The ATMs address an immediate need for pure drinking water. But can we also identify less water-intensive ways of purifying water and making this model more sustainable? We can.

It also goes without saying that we need to protect wetlands; not just the lakes and rivers, but other wetlands that are upstream and often ignored. We need to think of alternate ways of reimagining a city and retrofitting solutions for water access. Hydrologists have been recommending the addition of microinjection sites along the roads, where you have these tiny, deep holes that help water percolate well into the ground. With large, evolved cities, we need to come up with such novel approaches to address water-related issues.

Lakes and adjoining areas which were often used for multiple purposes such as fishing and grazing have been reduced to cesspools. Photo from Harini Nagendra.
Lakes and adjoining areas which were often used for multiple purposes such as fishing and grazing have been reduced to cesspools. Photo from Harini Nagendra.

Mongabay: The readers of Shades of Blue will stumble upon some surprising facts about the water sources in their cities. Was there anything that surprised you both during your research for the book?

Seema Mundoli: Usually, we have some information with us when we start working on a topic and then we build on it through our readings and research. There will always be that one fact that will hit us out of the blue. Every chapter had its interesting moments. For me, cryptozoology (the study of legendary or mthical creatures) was fascinating! We discovered a journal on this topic that was published for a while, which I found astonishing. Of course, we also encountered some scary surprises, like how widespread antimicrobial resistance is. It got us thinking about the water we drink and how we can address this.

Harini Nagendra: My Ph.D. research was on remote sensing and mapping, so maps have always fascinated me. In 1997, I came across a whole bunch of books on trained spies who helped develop maps. That was an old fascination I had set aside and was happy to revisit in Shades of Blue. What got me thinking the most was when I came across information about large historic dams in many parts of the world. They reveal that humans have always sought to make drastic, massive changes to the environment around them. While it’s not a new realisation, it’s still surprising when you think of the scale of that ambition and its far-reaching consequences.


Banner image: Fishers in Kalkere lake. Apart from recreational spaces, Bengaluru’s water bodies and green spaces are a source of livelihood for many. Photo by Mohit M. Rao/Mongabay.

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