Saving water is an alarm call we must heed every day

Nilgai at a water hole. (Neha Sinha)
Nilgai at a water hole. (Neha Sinha)


It shouldn’t take a heatwave to remind us we need to change our practices around water; that we should want to save it even when we aren’t thirsting after it

The year was 2021. Covid had tied us to our homes; naturally, this imbued us with a great thirst to look outside them. The heat was tremendous in May that year. I looked out of my window on a hot afternoon, eyes latching onto the place where drops of water dribbled from the AC. A little Purple sunbird was perched upside-down near the water, grasping the edge of the machine, taking in one drop at a time. Patiently, the sunbird waited to drink his fill. In Maharashtra, a friend reported seeing a Purple-rumped sunbird doing the same. Those silver droplets of water—otherwise wastewater for us—constituted a lifeline for the birds. And during covid’s second wave, people too thirsted for reliable sources of water. Those who drank from large canisters of mineral water had spotty delivery. For over two years, people could not get their water filtration systems serviced. I remember a Wi-Fi serviceman passing our gate, complaining that service-people—the men and women who help with plumbing, AC cooling, RO servicing, Wi-Fi maintenance, etc.—were being lured into houses with active infections. Everything was unfair, upside down, crooked. Households scrambled to make do with whatever the little ecosystem of the house could spare—RO waste water was collected, AC water was fed to the plants.

Earlier this month, I was in the forests of Maharashtra and Telangana. The temperature hovered near 40 degrees Celsius. The area was parched for water, rocks radiating heat, and everything seemed to be waiting for the monsoon to arrive. In Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, we employed the ecologist’s shortcut for spotting wildlife—we waited near a water hole. In the blazing heat of May and June, sources of water are veritable hang-out spots for wildlife. Quite literally. Animals and birds come to drink, and the larger, bolder mammals get right into the water, plonking in, staying half submerged, their alert heads sticking out, ears flicking like leaves in a breeze.

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That day as we waited near the waterhole, we wondered what would come to it. In central India, I have seen tigers lazing inside the water. In northern India, an even more interesting memory is that of birds—Black francolins, a solitary Common woodshrike and a Yellow-eyed babbler standing in something like a queue, waiting their turn for a drink.

In Tipeshwar, the leaves of the forest were unmoving. The stillness—a lack of motion, an inertia almost—was what we associate with high summer. The call of a Common hawk-cuckoo cut through the air—a call that sounds like “Brain fever! Brain fever!"

And suddenly, there was a darting, furtive moment. A streak of brown cut through the undergrowth like a wind, followed by another gust-like movement. Animals that looked like dogs, their mouths wide open, tongues hanging out, shapely black tails looking like fat plumes. It was a pack of dholes, the Indian wild dog. Young pups with big paws jumped straight into the water. An adult dhole watched us intently, its gaze razor-sharp, its eyes crushing us with intensity. As the pups splashed in the water, drinking it, standing in it, enjoying it, the adult was much more cautious. His sips were measured. He stayed at the shore, taking his responsibility as protector very seriously.

A little while later, the pups gambolled up to him. They pranced around him, begging. He put his head down and then moved away, back to his stance near the lip of the water. The pups put their heads down and began to eat. I realised what we had witnessed was a wonderful natural history moment—an adult dhole regurgitating food for young pack members, giving up his morsels so the young can thrive. Dholes are dogged hunters, attacking prey in a pack. Yet, the work of a pioneering Indian ecologist shed light on dholes as much more than canny hunters. In a paper published in the Journal of Zoology in 1982, A.J.T. Johnsingh documented the behaviour of dholes he observed from August 1976 to July 1978 in Bandipur Tiger Reserve.

The picture he drew is a lively one, full of seriousness and play. He wrote how pups beg for food from adults, and jaw-wrestle with other pups. Once they have made their kill, adults will often play with each other. Pack members whistle at each other to stay in touch and they scream with a “ka ka ka keone" when disturbed.

We lost Johnsingh in June, and my thoughts go out for all of the lives—human and non-human—that he touched. His work showed us the power of deep observation—and how the study of nature may often reveal hitherto unknown facets or interactions.

And so much of our history, and natural history is around water sources. In this year’s heatwave, water seems more precious than ever. In cities, the quest for water takes different forms. One is RWA (resident welfare association) groups asking each other if supply is low, and when the water will come. The other is water tankers coming to people, with lines of citizens with buckets below. Each summer there is a deficit of water, similar to the scarcity Bengaluru had for five whole months before the rain. And yet we forget this once the monsoon hits and our rivers and wetlands swell. It shouldn’t take a heatwave to remind us we need to change our practices around water; that we should want to save it even when we aren’t thirsting after it.

From a city planning perspective, tanks and water storage units should have planned water utilisation before the monsoon so rains can replenish them instead of simply overflowing. Streams and channels need desilting to help absorption. More recharge pits should be dug in open areas, and this could also include de-concretising suitable land for recharge. Flyovers need guided water run-offs so rainwater can funnel into pits, and not fall in huge quantities from gaps.

From a personal-use perspective, we must remember that our cars and roads don’t need to be washed with buckets of water. And in our homes, we must recycle water as much as we can, as some of us did during the pandemic. I think we all know this, but forget to do it.

The dholes in the waterbody are a reminder that water, whether in our drinks or our showers, is the stuff of life— creating experiences for bonding and sustenance, and for biophilic interaction and frolic. For the serious work of staying alive, and the work of staying playful. That day, oddly, as the brain fever bird called again, I remembered a grim fever I had one summer as a child. Medicines did not seem to be working, but what eventually worked was my mother pressing my forehead with a ticklish, dampened cloth. Like millions of other ailing kids, it was the simple presence of water in cloth that was the most refreshing, which indicated there were better things beyond the hot stupor of suffering.

As I work through mind-melting temperatures, and simultaneously reach for a glass of water, the dholes’ “ka ka ka keone" comes to mind: saving water, both from a policy and personal standpoint, is an alarm call we must heed every day.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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