WATER EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE
National Geographic Magazine India|August 2020
A 2,400-MILE TREK ACROSS INDIA REVEALS THE MYSTICAL LURE OF ITS SACRED RIVERS—ANDA CRISIS THAT THREATENS A WAY OF LIFE.
PAUL SALOPEK

‘Do you do magic tricks?’

IT IS THE VILLAGERS OF RAJASTHAN. They watch us pass in the hot light of the Thar Desert. We are unwashed, covered in coarse dust, darkened by sun: charred scarecrows trudging across India with a cargo donkey. Local people mistake us for vagabond performers, traveling quacks, circus nomads. They believe we are sorcerers. The answer to their question is: Yes, of course. We carry magic. But then, so does everyone.

It lies in water.

Human beings are mobile wells of mildly salty water. As every schoolchild knows, our bodies contain roughly the same percentage of water that covers the Earth’s surface. Such harmonies are no mystery. We are water animals born onto a water planet. Water is everywhere and nowhere. It is a restless element—unstill, on the move, always shifting its physical state from gas to liquid to solid and back again.

One oxygen atom. Two atoms of hydrogen.

Water molecules are bent like an arrow tip. Like an elbow. This helps give water a certain polarity, an infinitesimal charge on each end. This is how it collectively shapes our reality. It is the enchanted solvent and glue of our tangible world. It is the compound that both dissolves and binds our brain cells, mountain ranges, the steam wafting from our morning tea, and tectonic plates.

And yet there is so little to drink! The salty oceans hold roughly 97 percent of all the water on the globe. The poles and glaciers, though melting under the effects of climate change, lock up about 2 percent. Only an absurdly small droplet of the world’s total supply, less than one percent, is available for human survival: liquid freshwater. And yet, we squander this treasure like fools lost in a desert.

I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey—not in any other nation or continent—have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.

The world’s second-most populous country, home to more than 1.3 billion people and a landscape defined by iconic rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and all their mighty tributaries—now teeters at the edge of a water emergency with unknowable consequences. Roughly a hundred million people in 21 Indian megacities, including Delhi, Bengaluru (Bangalore), and Hyderabad, may gulp their last groundwater dry by the end of this year. Farmers in northern India’s Punjab, an important Asian breadbasket, complain that their relentlessly overpumped water tables are dropping by 40, 60, even a hundred feet in a single generation. And the problem doesn’t end with supply. Pollution in the form of industrial waste, urban sewage, and agricultural runoff has poisoned entire river systems. In total, some 600 million people—roughly half India’s population—live without enough clean water. Meanwhile, 20 million human beings are born every year in India, each requiring water to live.

I trek for nearly a year and a half across the river plains of northern India. I plod over concrete highway overpasses, balance atop railroad bridges, and sit on my pack in tippy canoes, navigating river after river. There are hundreds. Each one, according to Hinduism, is sacred—a deity even. (The Ganges, or Ganga in Hindi, is a pale goddess depicted with as many as four arms, riding a crocodile.) The future of India churns within their silty currents.

“Will there be a magic show?” ask the people of the Thar.

Children skip alongside us, barefooted, laughing, squinting up against the desert sun. Sentinel khejri trees throw pale silver shadows onto the yellow ocher sands. The local wells are poisoned by too much iron and fluoride.

Magic? Sure. Let us call it the grand vanishing act.

On the burned flats around Sambhar Salt Lake, in a dying wetland outside Jaipur, we spot hundreds of ragged figures moving in the distance. Hour after hour they walk backward, yanking wooden rakes over the white plain. Women salt workers. The quicksilver heat swallows up their spindly legs, delivers them back again. Infernal abracadabra. But it isn’t, really. It’s just us in a waterless world.

The Indus: River of rivers

INDIA — FROM INDOS IN GREEK, derived from hind in Persian, originating from the Sanskrit word sindhu, meaning river.

Where is the fabled Indus—river of rivers?

Where can one locate this immensely long, brawny waterway, born in the glaciers of Tibet—a gigantic, supple, living, liquid entity whose basin sprawls across nearly half a million square miles of the Earth—a nurturer of ancient civilizations, a binational lifeline for millions of farmers in India and Pakistan? As I walk across the Indian state of Punjab, finding it is no simple task.

I join Arati Kumar-Rao, an environmental photographer, slogging the back roads south of Amritsar. Five large tributaries of the Indus ribbon across northwestern India. The Jhelum. The Chenab. The Ravi. The Beas. The Sutlej. We seek out the Beas. Soon we are lost. We blunder into a labyrinth of industrial agriculture.

Each day is a furnace. We sweat around endless, steaming quadrangles of wheat. We pass Sikh temples topped with airy white domes, where volunteers offer simple meals of dal and rice to all passersby. We dodge armadas of chugging tractors. Each blasts Punjabi pop music at the sky through loudspeakers lashed to the operator’s chair. Why? It’s impossible to say. Can the drivers hear the music over their roaring engines? Aliens flying above Punjab would look down in wonder—with fingers plugging their ears. Cults of deaf humans (they would think) are performing some tireless ritual: etching the land in circles with machines, serenading the cosmos. But no: They are simply Punjabi farmers at work.

And then, dimly, I understand. We have found the Indus already! For days—weeks—we have been walking within the diffused presence of the river. Its currents have been diverted, bled off, channeled, diffused, parsed into countless canals, pipes, weirs, and furrows. This human-built capillary system has rendered the ancient green channels of the Indus tributaries largely irrelevant as geographical entities. Each of Punjab’s billions of ripe wheat heads carries a drop of the Indus watershed in atomized form.

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