How Can We Manage A Resource We Don't Understand?
When John Rowell moved to India in 2012, he had a limited understanding of ‘water problems’. A chance encounter with a member of the Indo-French Cell for Water Sciences led him on a six month journey to better understand our most precious resource.
Courtesy: John Rowell.
Access to water has always been a pressing issue for far too many people around the world. As our populations grow the demand increases, and the question of how and where all of us will get water from is becoming critical. This does not just affect us humans, but every single living organism on the planet, because we are all linked though our need and use of water.
I grew up in the UK, and the only water problems I faced was that it would interrupt the cricket, or make a cold day miserable. At the time, I never realized how lucky I was to have these ‘problems’. At school I learnt about droughts and floods, and how vital water is, but I still did not appreciate what ‘water problems’ meant, not truly. It was not until I moved to Bangalore, India, in 2012 that I was confronted with the reality of ‘water problems’. A limited supply of non-drinking water is commonplace for the lucky, and a dream for those less fortunate. Something I had taken for granted my whole life, was now a luxury, and as I researched into the subject, I found it to be the tip of a very complicated iceberg.
One day, I bumped into a French scientist who was working on water in India. This may sound a little odd, but I too am a scientist, and to say we have small social circles could be called an understatement. We talked, or more accurately I bombarded him with questions, and I was astonished at what I discovered, and how little I knew.
Courtesy: John Rowell.
In 2001, the Indian and French governments came together to form a joint research cell, in order to research how our water is behaving and, more importantly, what might happen in the future? The Indo-French Cell for Water Sciences, based in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, was initially aimed at examining how water behaves differently between two systems; the pristine forest of Bandipur National Park, and in the farmlands in the neighboring buffer zone. This deceptively simple question soon expanded, as more and more research was required just to start to understand this, leading to an ever-expanding field of scientific research. Now, 15 years later, they have amassed one of the most diverse scientific teams I have ever encountered, spanning everything from sociology to soil ecology and hydrology from space, from laboratory scale experiments to using satellite data to accurately calculate water reserves at a large scale, and from sample collection and chemical analysis to mathematically modeling the water system to generate sustainable usage practices, all whilst keeping the entire ecosystem in mind; flora, fauna and humans alike. They are tackling the key questions that are required in order for us to manage our water resources efficiently and sustainably. How is the water behaving and, more importantly, what might happen in the future? What is happening to all our water, from start to finish? Will we have enough? Can we develop a sustainable usage system? Is there a future without water?
The more they research the more evident it is that water is connected to everything, and everything is connected through its need for water. We need to understand those connections to manage it properly. "The safe delivery of the right quality of water, at the right quantity, at the right place, is the need of the hour. That can only be done with proper water management." Said Prof. Mohan Kumar IISc, Bangalore. If we do not manage our water resources well, it is not only we humans that will suffer; our entire ecosystem will be affected. If we use or pollute all the ground water for farming, how will the neighboring trees survive in times of a poor monsoon? How can a forest without trees survive and sustain the wildlife within? Everything is so closely connected; any wrong move on our part can have repercussions far beyond our comprehension.
I am a photographer, and this was a story I thought worth telling. But a story like this was too complex to tell with just images, so I worked with the Indo-French cell for six months on a mini-documentary in order to skim the surface of their research. I wanted to share the faces of the hidden people working to make our lives easier, keep crops growing, and expanding our understanding of the ecosystem and our place in it. Days of filming were hard, starting at 4:30 a.m. in Bangalore, reaching the first field station at about 9:00 a.m. (traffic permitting), and making the return trip to arrive back in Bangalore at midnight. The whole day was spent driving, and trekking between collection sites in both the forested and farmed areas of the catchment. Accompanied by a forest department guard, we would enter into Bandipur National Park, through the lantana (which have nasty thorns by the way) where the researchers would collect samples from bore wells and monitor the ground water levels. All with the ever present fear of elephants, bears, and tigers, which the scientists have run into in the past.
Courtesy: John Rowell.
In the current climate where water resources can cause cities to shut down, bring people to the brink of civil war, and drive political agendas, water research is becoming more and more important. How can we manage a resource we don’t understand? And as I said at the beginning, we are not the only ones affected. If we drain our water sources, how will wildlife survive? How can we manage natural resources so that the whole system can survive? Research like this needs to continue, before research and adaptation turns into crisis management.
A scientist and photographer, John Rowell holds a PhD in Biochemistry. His work with the Indo-French Cell for Water Sciences culminated in a mini-documentary, A Future Without Water?
Author: John Rowell.