Water & India – A Story of Life

-Mathew George

Water, without a doubt, is the ever-important pivot underpinning local, regional, national and transnational peace and stability. Free access to water will, quite simply, be the catalyst determining amity & hostility, progress & regress, innovation & inertia, inspiration & inadequacy. The flow of water will determine the direction future human society will flow.

I am a resident of India, a country that almost always conjures up colorful images of a bustling society, marked by its diversity and a myriad of cultures, religions, languages, customs, festivals, terrain, landscapes, cuisines and climates. But what hallmarks India much more than everything else, is the monsoon, which quite regularly and reliably provides water to the sub-continental landmass besides helping to flush nutrients through various rivers into the fertile alluvial fields of India – home to just under a fifth of all humanity but with water resources amounting to only 4% of the world total.

Water, Paani, Jal, Neer, Eau, Uji, Voda, Vand, Wai, Acqua, Agua, Abba, Ama, Mâa, Mool, Mizu, Paa, Thanneer, Vellam, Vann, Vasser. So many names, with so much implicit meaning, across the world. Among all the names for water, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that the expressions Abba, Paa and Ama, Mâa signifying Father and Mother find usage in some languages. Despite its relative omnipresence and our lack of appreciation for it, water is more integral to our existence than anything else we interact with or use – indeed the blood of life itself. We however, take it for granted, recognizing its importance only when it is troubling us because there is too little of it or too much of it. At other times we abuse it, ignore it or even foul it.

Water is the building block of life and everything you use to sustain life. Water makes possible everything that you eat and moreover your food and the nutrients your body makes from food get to where they need to be only because water is the carrier – creating, nourishing and moving life.

Unsurprisingly, water brings out the child in people. It is a real study to watch the expressions of people who come across a raging waterfall, a frothy sea or a placid lake. In contra point, let us imagine the expressions of people who come across stinky sewage, a polluted sea front or a lake killed by human actions. Water exists, seemingly in extremes. As much as water sustains life, it can snuff out life too.

Water can be the healing symbol of peace and harmony, but it can also be the cause of acrimony and strife locally, nationally and internationally. Like wealth, it is plagued with inequitable distribution. We are on a planet where the principal life-giver is water. Yet we demand that water obey us, appear where we choose to live and for that we rake up old controversies and rivalries, stemming from primitive disagreements of people long since gone.

For me, personally, water is associated with my childhood where a series of events around water gave me certain grounding; or a flotation if you will, to enjoying and appreciating water in all its forms. The place I called home was full of monsoon driven rivulets, wetness, a shroud-like mist, fish, water snakes, frogs and everything else that a lush, soaked monsoon jungle could offer.

The Monsoon – The Cup that Overflows:

No wind on earth has been more eulogized in folklore, poetry or myth than the Monsoon. And in science- one of the greatest of the world’s atmospheric currents, s super intense wind, the Indian monsoon is a great carrier of energy balancing the pressure differences between land and sea. An enormous, reversing sea-breeze, the monsoon is the result of the imbalances in the way heat is absorbed land and sea, causing changes in atmospheric circulation and thereby precipitation.

Unlike lesser monsoons, the unique combination here of giant mountains and a vast plateau constantly chilled by the icy air currents over Tibet creates an enormous mass of cold, dense air. The sweltering summer in the great plains of India, surrounded on three sides by cooler oceans, leaves a trough of low density, brimming with warm air, into which the cold and dry mass discharges in a couple of months.

The English word, Monsoon, may have ad its origins in the Portuguese, monção, which may be further traced to the Arabic Mawsim or the Hindi Mausam all of these terms referring to season. There is also an ancient Dutch reference to these winds; monsun.

The legend of Alexander the Great has it that during his great conquests of 3 BCE, he vanquished everything in his path, however he faced the mutiny of his troops in the face of the Indian Monsoon, these seasonal winds sort of ending the expansionist spree of Western History’s greatest conqueror. The Monsoon has shaped empires and dynasties, and even served as trade winds sculpting the course of economic expansion.

The Indian Monsoon accounts for three quarters of India’s rainfall and is the driving force for agriculture which accounts for one-third of the country’s GDP and employs two-third of the population and can be said to be the principal life influencer on the sub-continent.

The reverse monsoon occurs once the powerful South West monsoon has passed its peak. By late September or mid-October, with the sun beginning to move into the winter equinox, a cold wind begins to sweep down in a direction south of south east towards the Bay of Bengal from the Himalayas. This is the time of the North East or retreating monsoon that brings rain over parts of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu plains and the south eastern peninsula.

At the present population level, India gets almost 5 million liters of rainfall per person, but this isn’t as bountiful as it sounds. Rainfall is uneven across the country and much of the water is wasted as run-off. To this extent, the river interlinking project may provide a few answers but given the lack of impact assessment on India’s groundwater hydrology, which is much larger, potentially, than the rivers or lakes compounded with the effect of diverting so much energy to managing antagonistic river flows over terrains of varying heights from mean sea level – decisions will not be easy.

In summation, water will be India’s biggest problem over the coming decades.


Some Statistics:

  • About 1386 Million cubic kilometers – that is the total water on earth
  • One glass of water can have 8 septillion (1024) water molecules
  • One-third of all fresh water is underground.
  • Atmosphere holds more water than all the rivers combined
  • More than a tenth of the world’s people lack access to safe drinking water
  • Estimates of unpaid work put in by women for the task of daily water collection amounts to 200 million work hours per year. In India women may spend up to 25% of their daily work hours just to collect water.
  • Tiny household leaks from taps and pipes waste billions of liters of water. At a mere one drop per second, a tap can leak up to 8000 liters of water in a year.


Mathew George is currently working as General Manager (Petrochemicals), at Indian Oil
Corporation, Mumbai, India. Mathew, a career Oil man of 32 years, is a Mechanical Engineer by training with two MBA’s in Finance and Brand Management.
Widely travelled in 49 countries, Mathew is a keen observer of nature who strongly believes that mankind is provoking nature to take revenge on them. He is a regular speaker at international conferences having spoken at over 50 of them on subjects ranging from Petroleum, Geopolitics, Petrochemicals and Information Technology. For the last four years he has been a key-note speaker at Microsoft’s prestigious, annual, “Convergence” event in USA, speaking on the subject of Customer Relationship Management using IT. A keen amateur pianist and private pilot, he is also a skilled debater.

This article was featured in Matter Thoughts Issue 1 – Horizons