Ecological wisdom in everyday decision-making
Last week, Geography Fellow Dr Bhaskar Vira discussed with Business Standard, India’s leading business daily newspaper, the need to incorporate ecological wisdom into our everyday decision-making.
Bhaskar Vira teaches at the Department of Geography and is Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. He is also Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute. He spoke to Business Standard’s Aditi Phadnis about the need to incorporate ecological wisdom into our everyday decision-making.
‘Nature sends us no bill, so we ignore it in our decisions’
Last week four Tibetan monks held prayers alongside the Naini lake, where mounds of dead fish were piled up because the water in the lake is drying up. But isn’t the matter beyond prayer? All over India, hills are facing an acute shortage of water. What is the solution?
I’m always a little wary of suggesting simple solutions to what are usually complex problems. But, we need to start with a change in our attitudes to what nature provides us. We have tended to take these ‘gifts’ for granted … clean air, water, forests, and the species that inhabit these spaces, all of which contribute to improving our lives. Nature does not send us a bill for these services, so we ignore them in decision-making, until we hit a moment of crisis, such as the current shortage of water. We need to incorporate ecological wisdom into our everyday decision-making. We need to understand how water flows, how our decisions impact on these flows, and to learn to treat nature with the respect it deserves. We need to reinvest in nature rather than contributing to its destruction.
India is not a dry country but almost all of the rain falls during the monsoon. How can we safely store and transport water so that it’s available 12 months a year, and distributed evenly throughout the country? How can we prevent encroachment in hill towns and sensitise local populations about it?
The problem in India is both to do with the timing of the rains, and where the rain falls — there is both temporal and spatial unevenness. So, in any given year, we will get most of the rainfall in the three-four months of the monsoon; and, in any given year, we will also see a pattern of scarcity (too little rain in some places) and plenty (too much rain in others).
We can’t change this pattern — but we can develop ways to cope with it. One key issue is storage of water, both above ground (in ponds, lakes, tanks, and rivers) and below ground (in terms of aquifer and groundwater recharge). For example, in Nainital, allowing Sukhatal to serve as a buffer for the main lake, storing water in the monsoon, and then slowly releasing it in subsequent months are very sensible ways to manage the problem of too much monsoon rain. Up and down the country, we have traditional tanks and storage systems that are being built and encroached upon, with developers unaware and unconcerned about the implications for the associated disruption to hydrological systems.
The encroachment issue is related. Many of these water storage systems are temporary or seasonal, critical for a few months, but then apparently falling into disuse for the rest of the year. This temporary availability of space encourages encroachment and the occupation of land. These pressures can, and must, be resisted. We need to carefully demarcate these ‘critical water zones’, and ensure that they are protected. With modern technology, and a vigilant civil society, monitoring compliance should not be too difficult. It is important for local populations to realise that they can address these problems, and to pressure the authorities to ensure compliance with land use and zoning regulations.