This piece began with a letter from a reader. One fine morning, as I was admiring the heated toilet seats at the Peninsula Tokyo, I got an email from a stranger. “An appeal for writing about the impending water crisis," the email began. It came from a Mr Chandrasekhar from Minneapolis who wanted me to write a column on water. The gentleman had done his homework. He pointed me to an article in Knowledge@Wharton which began, “Is water the new oil?"

Trickle effect: For many, life revolves around securing the daily supply of water. Photo: Sharad Haksar

“Request you to write an article (laced with humor and satire)," he said. The fact that he considered me humorous sold me. Flattery it may be and superficial I may be, but it worked.

The email solved a problem that every columnist faces: what topic to write about. In this case, I had long wanted to write an “environmental" column that went beyond the usual exhortations to recycle. Environmental problems usually require two kinds of solutions: macro and micro. Global warming, for instance, can best be addressed by macro-level policy changes on greenhouse gases and emissions. The same applies to saving the tiger or marine conservation. We can sign petitions, or buy Titan’s newly-released WWF-fund watches but these pale in comparison with say, George Bush establishing the world’s largest marine conservation zone in Hawaii with a single sweep of legislation.

There are other areas however, where micro solutions can make a difference. By carrying your own version of Anya Hindemarch’s super-successful “I am not a Plastic Bag" tote, by refusing plastic, by recycling, by going organic, by composting, and doing multiple other small things, you and I can make a difference to the environment. The beauty of water is that it hits people both at the macro and micro level. Unlike Himalayan glaciers which are quite removed from the everyday lives of most people, water is the epitome of the word “essential". You can go without food; you can’t go without water.

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I have to admit that I haven’t given water much thought so far. As a cause, it didn’t resonate with me. I considered going without water for a couple of days to earn my stripes as it were, to write this piece. That seemed — and is — a little gimmicky. Then I emailed Sunita Nadhamuni. As CEO of Bangalore-based Arghyam, a non-profit dedicated to bringing safe sustainable water to all, Nadhamuni probably spends a fair bit of time thinking about water.

“Dear Ms Nadhamuni," I said. “I am a journalist who writes for Mint. Is there really a global water crisis? If so, what should we do? Last thing and this may be personal: Why are you focusing your effort on water as opposed to say, returning the Olive Ridley turtles to the beaches of Orissa?"

While I waited, I boned up on the Wharton article, which neatly encapsulated the problem. Here is my summary of the piece: 97% of our planet is salt water. The remaining 3% should be enough for all the species on earth, if you factor in annual rainfall. The problem is mismanagement of water resources. How to solve this?

Having grown up in Chennai, I am familiar with water shortage and what it feels like. Even so, I have never spent a day without water. I have not experienced what Nadhamuni calls “the big life-altering choices" that the rural poor endure, many of which “lead back to water", which incidentally is the reason she got into water in the first place.

To get a measure of the water crisis, I suppose you have to go to interior India. There you will see the things Nadhamuni describes: daughters not being sent to school because they need to collect water; women choosing to eat minimally so that they won’t have to relieve themselves during the day because there is no water to clean up after; mothers giving their babies water with fluoride while seeing the evidence of fluorosis all around them. In other words, it’s a different world out there, amigo. Get out of your Stressless massager and smell the…

The good news is that water evangelism is gaining ground. A new film called Flow documents it. Wired magazine called Flow “the scariest movie in the Sundance Festival". Scarier still is maverick oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has bought an aquifer and plans to sell water. If a billionaire is stockpiling water, maybe the rest of us ought to take notice.

India is going to face a water crisis quicker than, say, Israel, Singapore and Australia, all of which are decades ahead in water management. Ram Krishnan, a US-based NRI, plans to spend the next five years taking on the water challenge. I heard about Krishnan, an IIT Madras alumnus, from my cousin (Krishnan was one year his senior at IITM). “The moment you bring in water to a village, you bring in food security. When this security is there, a villager will be content to stay where he is and not migrate to the city," Krishnan said in an article in The Indian Express. He is building ooranis or tanks to collect and conserve rainwater.

A lot more of us need to become water evangelists — like Mr Chandrasekhar from Minneapolis, like Nadhamuni, like Krishnan ( who wants to form a pan-IIT consortium to conserve water; like Rohini Nilekani, who has chosen to lend her voice and efforts (she has given Rs150 crore to Arghyam) to the cause of water, like Magsaysay award-winner Rajendra Singh — the “rain-catcher" of Rajasthan, like Gandhian Anupam Mishra, who travels to villages to advocate water harvesting.

Different causes resonate with different people. But water is a no-brainer. Even if you don’t give up your life for its cause like social activist couple Mahesh Kant and Sarita of Gaya district, Bihar; even if you are not a Jal Yodha (water warrior) operating under the auspices of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), water conservation doesn’t require much from each of us. Just like you refuse plastic, you can reduce your usage of water. You can teach your kids to use water wisely; you can, as Nadhamuni says, “come down heavily on polluters" and demand that they be water-neutral.

If nothing else, it will be (sorry, couldn’t resist) a drop in the ocean.

Shoba Narayan is learning about beris, ahar, pyne, zings, ooranis, medbandis, bandharas, kundis and other water harvesting methods.They are fascinating exercises in engineering and ingenuity.

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