Hot Water: The intersection of culture, politics, and ecology in India

By Dan DiNicola

Stepwell in Jodhpur. Ethen Whattam

Societies and cultures are birthed on the banks of some of the world’s great rivers—the Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and the Ganges. These rivers continue to endure as the economic arteries that carve through regions and countries. Transportation, commerce, drinking water, agriculture, fisheries, and power for homes and industries all depend on the constant flow of water. Many are seen as sacred, gifted to the people through divine means, establishing deep-seated convictions while raising difficult questions about control and management.

Ethen Whattam, an undergraduate student in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, recently returned from India, where he spent 10 months studying as a recipient of the Boren Scholarship. Whattam, along with the other student awardees, was given the opportunity to immerse himself in the Hindi language and culture, while researching a topic of his choice critical to U.S. national security interests. Defined broadly, the scope of national security allows for varying areas of research including public health, disease prevention, human trafficking, and in Whattam’s case, hydropolitics.

Because Whattam has always been fascinated by the intersection of the environment and security, the rapid development in India presented an enticing challenge. The country’s historical and religious dependency on water, along with its concerns of pollution, provided the perfect opportunity to dive into these complex issues head first.

“I was learning a new language, culture, and the science used at both the local and national level to study the ever-changing water supply. I was bringing it all together,” he says.

Traveling throughout the Indian subcontinent, Whattam saw firsthand how its major rivers are vital to the lives of millions of people, the profound impact they have on international relations, and how this experience would help shape his future career.

He sums it up, “it was pretty damn cool.”

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India is uniquely situated at the confluence of two major river basins, the Indus River Basin to the north and the Brahmaputra Basin, which includes the mighty Ganges or Ganga, to the east. With headwaters from high in the Himalayas, these long meandering river systems pass through multiple countries, creating complex, often delicate, relations with India’s neighbors.

The Ganges and the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers make up the Brahmaputra River Basin, home to over 625 million people. The vast majority are farmers who rely on the water for their crops and livestock. The river basin itself encompasses a wide area made up of parts of India, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Map of the region, with the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra basins outlined in white. Thinner outlines are national borders. Viste and Sorteberg

When describing the region, Whattam recounts a series of devastating floods in the Brahmaputra Basin in 2017 that killed 130 people and left millions stranded. In the wake of the disaster, India accused China of breaking an agreement to share hydrological data on the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers, which originate in China-controlled Tibet.

“You have 30 million people living downstream who need this data to understand when the floods are coming, when to evacuate people, and when to preserve water from the dams and not let them flow,” Whattam says.

Speculation later arose that China purposely held back data in retaliation for a 73-day military stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Doklam near Bhutan around the same time. However, China claims its hydrological systems were washed away by floods and it was, therefore, unable to share its data. Relations have recently improved, and China was notably lauded by issuing a warning to India in August 2018 of rising waters in the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river. This advanced warning gave Indian authorities enough time to prepare for the coming floods, mitigating the damage.

In the Indus Basin, the tumultuous relations between India and Pakistan are amplified by India’s control of the headwaters of rivers that flow between the countries.

“You’ve got two nuclear powers fighting over water, and India, as the upstream country, has control of all of it,” Whattam says. “Upwards of 50% of the water that Pakistan needs is controlled by their enemy.”

The situation reached a tipping point in 2019 after the Pulwama terrorist attack in the Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir territory. Holding Pakistan responsible, India warned it would “stop” the flow of water from its rivers into Pakistan, reaffirming previous sentiments from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “blood and water cannot flow together.”

“This was one of the first times that I’ve seen something like this happen from a transboundary or water relations standpoint,” Whattam says. “India was essentially saying, ‘[Pakistan] you need to figure out your terrorist solution, and if you don’t, we’re going to turn off the water.’ They are using water as leverage to force change.”

As an outside observer, Whattam saw many of these events unfold in real-time while living in India. Having become conversationally fluent in Hindi, he was able to add additional context to these issues by speaking with local people and understanding the local news. He points out that conflicts like these change the dynamics of entire regions, further illustrating how international relations, the economy, terrorism, and public health and safety are all interconnected through water resources.

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“They came from the Ganga, and it is their mother.”

Ethen Whattam

In India, all rivers are of great religious importance, but the Ganges, in particular, is the most sacred. Known as “mother Ganga,” it is considered a tirtha, or a crossing point between heaven and earth, as well as the mother of all Hindu people. Ganges water is so sacred that many devotees keep jars of it in their homes; Whattam himself was even tasked by locals to return with jugs full of it from his frequent trips to the river.

Every three years, hundreds of millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage to the banks of India’s most holy rivers for the festival of Kumbh Mela. In 2019, the Kumbh Mela was held in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati rivers. In what is the world’s largest gathering of people, the faithful bathe in the waters of the holy rivers to wash away their sins and liberate themselves from their cycle of reincarnation.

When Whattam found out about the massive festival in Prayagraj, he realized it was a once in a lifetime event that he had to check it out for himself.

“It was a wild, wild experience, with around 120 million people coming to the festival,” he says “The amount of diversity encapsulated in this small area increased my understanding of India’s diverse religious and cultural practices.”

Allahabad, India – March 04, 2019:Thousands of Hindu devotees come to the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna River for holy dip during the festival Kumbh Mela. It is the world’s largest religious gathering. iStock

The Ganges, like all rivers in India, is threatened by a variety of factors that put millennia-old-traditions, like Kumbh Mela, at risk. The Himalayan glaciers at the source of these rivers are melting at an unprecedented rate due to climate change, resulting in less water downstream. The water itself is also severely polluted by untreated sewage and industrial waste along much of its length.

Whattam explains how in the neighboring cities upstream of Prayagraj there is a high density of tanneries. Here, the leather industry uses extremely toxic chemicals to soften and preserve the hides, including carcinogenic compounds of chromium. With no proper treatment and recovery methods in place, these pollutants flow freely into the Ganges.

In an attempt to combat some of the point-source pollution and ensure cleaner water for bathers, the Indian government forced a shutdown of all tannery facilities in the upstream cities of Kanpur and Unnao in the months leading up to 2019’s Kumbh Mela. Since December 2018, almost 300 businesses have closed and remained shuttered, leaving 300,000 workers jobless.

“Suddenly you had all of these Muslims from the tannery factories out of work,” he says. Whattam clarifies that to Hindus, cows are considered sacred, so they do not work for these businesses. The sanctions therefore unilaterally impacted a predominantly Muslim owned and operated industry.

“You have all these interesting dynamics happening where the river can be clean for bathing and drinking, but at the cost of people’s jobs and livelihoods. The water problems that India is experiencing now are sinuating through all of these social issues—race, religion, and class status.”

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While the government attempts to combat point-source pollution, some local citizen-based efforts are taking a different approach to clean up India’s rivers and improve public health. NGOs, such as Barefoot College, work with women from rural and poor areas on various issues, including education, skill development, health, and clean water. Barefoot College’s landmark program teaches women to become solar engineers, empowering them to use and share their knowledge in their home villages around the world.

Whattam had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with Barefoot College at its campus in the village of Tilonia in Rajasthan, India. The women there had a laboratory facility where they were sampling water from the local village wells. He observed even with rudimentary equipment, they were able to run tests and identify which chemicals are in the water and if it was safe to drink.

“The program empowered these women to be leaders in their community by going out and testing the wells for all these people,” Whattam says. “They were using data and creating charts to show their husbands saying, ‘Hey we can’t drink the water today! We need to go somewhere else to collect water!’”

The women also had the additional responsibility of tending to nurseries full of native plants that would be replanted in order to help revive the surrounding rivers and ecosystems.

“These are women who have never been to school and never even known what a science experiment was. Before [Barefoot College], they would have been at home making naan… and now they’re scientists–now they’re leaders in their community,” Whattam says. “It showed me how science travels throughout the world and how the pursuit of knowledge is what everybody wants; it was fantastic to see.”

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The Boren Awards are principally language scholarships, providing funding opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students to obtain long-term linguistic skills and experience cultural immersion abroad. The program’s central mission is to provide the U.S. government with experts in languages critical to U.S. national security. Preference is placed on applicants who are interested in a career with the federal government.

Upon completion of the Boren and graduation from an institution, recipients are then obligated to work for the U.S. government for one year.

“You kind of have to pay it back and use the skills that you’ve acquired,” Whattam says, recommending the scholarship to anyone who has a passion to study abroad and learn a new language and who also wants to work in government.

When it comes to water policy and hydropolitics here in the U.S., he already sees plenty of areas for application, including locally in the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. and Canada are currently revisiting the landmark Columbia River Treaty, an international agreement governing the flow of water between British Columbia and six U.S. states. Since first implemented in 1964, the revised treaty will be an opportunity to address modern issues and challenges, including climate change, salmon conservation, and indigenous rights.

Looking back on his journey throughout India, Whattam reflects on a popular local saying.

ऊट के मुँह में ज़ीरा है

Translated from Hindi it means “like a cumin seed in a camel’s mouth.” A common idiom, it refers to something which is too little or insufficient to solve something massive, just as one cumin seed would do nothing to satiate a hungry camel.

To Whattam, it means how “in India, you never know how the day is going to turn out and any slight obstacle is tiny compared to the overall experience.”

In a broader context, it also speaks to the large-scale political and socioeconomic shifts occurring in India around water. That there is no one solution that solves all issues, but rather it will take the collective ingenuity and dedication of the people, like the many Whattam met in his travels, to tackle them head-on.

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For more information about the Boren Awards visit their website at https://borenawards.org/ or contact your undergraduate/graduate advisor for help with the application process.

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