When we drink the devil’s water
In the context of groundwater, she started by reading this Australian folk song from the turn of the century:
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, well, we’ll get it from the devil
Yes we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.
(Banjo Paterson, 1896)
At the Philomathia Forum last Friday, Sally Thompson, Assistant Professor of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Engineering program, presented on the Arkvathy River in South India, whose flow has declined since the 1970s and has now run dry in many areas; similar to the Colorado. In places where depths used to be over people heads, they can stand in what basically is now a dry field even during the rainy season.
Where has this water gone? Thompson explores the basic explanations: Has the rainfall changed? Has evaporation increased? What about channel encroachment?
Her research comes up with a negative on all counts. However, Thompson then points to what she thinks of as the elephant in the room—groundwater. Although Thompson understands river basins as complex systems, groundwater is a big piece of the puzzle. Water tables in the region have dropped up to sixty feet in the past few decades, and surface wells have gone dry. And who’s to blame?
Thompson goes back to the British era. In India, stepped water tanks in the ground were built in communities as reservoirs for agricultural use. Tank custodians would then receive a tithe of the farmers’ production. More water meant better production therefore greater tithe, incentivizing better tank management. This system collapsed when the British centralized payment to tank custodians who then lost incentive to actually manage the tanks.
Add to this water hungry development and unregulated extraction of groundwater and you have “a race to the bottom.” All of this coincides with my experiences with groundwater in India.
I surveyed the city of Gurgaon while interning with an NGO, looking for potential areas for groundwater recharge and water treatment. This city near New Delhi suddenly has popped out of seemingly nowhere with tall buildings occupied by multinationals and hip young people. Decked out with fast food joints, shopping malls and company offices, the thing that has gotten left for figuring out later is water. Now that the water table is dropping at alarming rates, a community group asked the NGO to help, as they cannot wait for the government to get its act together before it all runs dry.
Water comes from a variety of sources—all interconnected. God apparently gives us water from the sky; the devil, from the ground. In ancient India, the Ganges River is a goddess who fell from great heights; and today we talk about sea level rise from Arctic glaciers via the magic of meteorology.
In some ways though, it seems rather appropriate to think of extracted water as coming from the devil. The devil works in mysterious ways. It all is quite good at the start. Then at some point we reach the bottom, and everything is gone. And all that is then left to be done is to dry up and fade away.