Vanishing shorelines: 'Hunting Down Water' in India

Sanjay Barnela Maya Khosla Vasant Saberwal
18 August 2004

“The third world war will be a war over water”. Acclaimed documentary filmmakers Sanjay Barnela and Vasant Saberwal describe the experience of filming India’s current water crisis and tell the story of a people in search of water. Plus poetry inspired by their films from Maya Khosla.

“The third world war will be a war over water”, proclaims Chattar Singh, the diminutive farmer from Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, as we grapple with the knotted audio cable in a futile effort to get our camera rolling in time to catch these soundbites. It is 2002: we are shooting near Ramgarh, halfway through our five-part series of video documentaries on the politics of water.

We let the camera roll and Chattar Singh tells us how he and his kin have been reduced to penury because he believed the local politicians. “The Indira Gandhi canal will bring us water from Punjab. It will green this desert”. He has sold jewellery and borrowed money from the village moneylender to buy land alongside the canal. He swears he has never gambled.

Fifteen years on, he is still waiting for water; still waiting for the first harvest from his field. He breaks down while the camera rolls away, translating his story into digital-shaped signals, film footage. We get our human-interest story and move on to interview the next person, Laxman Singh: three acres of land, and a loan from the moneylender at 48% interest per year…


Khaali Nallah (Dry canal)

Strangers drank from bottled water.
They drew a line in the dust
Vowed that water
would travel for miles
until it reached us.
I watched the ants
and dreamed of moist soil
between my toes,
fields of gold wheat.

That night I said to her
Grip the end of your sari
With both hands
And I will fill it:
A basket of wedding jewels.
Don’t look
The best ones must go.

I bought dust. Acres of it.

Canal construction shimmered
In the distance. It came
Uphill and downhill.
It came across dune
And earthcrack
It came across my line in the dust
It came with empty hands.

I watched the ants,
The salt-dry dust.

A landscape of thirst

We have almost twelve years’ experience of working on water-related films. We remember the time when experts extolled the virtues of the India Mark II hand-pump – a revolutionary way of extracting groundwater. The hand-pump made it easier to draw water from deeper ground. Several national and international aid agencies were pouring in money to install hand-pumps in remote rural areas. We even made audio-visuals to help them spread the message to policy-makers and NGOs across India.

left: Sanjay Barnela
right: Vasant Saberwal

There has been an absolute turnaround on this position now. Today, the same people are crying hoarse about the need to regulate the extraction of groundwater. It has taken our planners so long to recognise that 60% of India is underlain by an impervious basaltic layer of rock that makes groundwater recharging virtually impossible. These groundwater supplies will not last forever.

Between 2001 and 2003, we took our camera across rural landscapes and cityscapes in search of a hierarchy of water stories – at individual, community, and broad socio-political levels. We found large locks placed on village homes. We followed the canals that traversed the drylands — canals that moved upslope and downslope on a journey destined to bring no water. We documented water-related displacement and mass migrations to urban areas. We travelled from village to village and listened to the different stories of water needs. We conducted interviews atop trains, within wells and on the back of motorcycles. Through these stories and encounters, we discovered a connection had been forged between the complacent attitude of the city and the water-impoverished village.

We were ultimately searching for a bigger picture of the trends in water-resource issues across India. As presented in our documentary Hunting Down Water, a stark picture of water resources in rural India began to emerge: a water resource crisis of national proportions.


Excerpt from ‘Hunting Down Water’:

“And this is how the local people, mainly Warli tribals, source drinking water for themselves – from leaks in the 120 kilometre pipeline to Mumbai, or the same old method which has passed the test of time for centuries in India...”

Filling the Earthen pots at the Pipe

Measure me not
By cup, bucket
Or ku-wu ku-wu call
Of the koyel
Measure me not by coins
counted back
Or by scent of drying jasmine
In my hair
Listen instead
For the song that vanished:
The monsoon calling
For fish to dance
On their ears.
Take that song in both hands.
Recreate its gold
And tea-light warmth
Now turn your head away,
Leave me here.
I am darkness, I am the miles
You cannot imagine walking.

pots top

Water business, good business?

India’s water-bottling industry has an annual turnover in excess of 1,800 crore (one crore = 10 million rupees). While this may be partially related to the emerging purchasing-power of the middle class it is also an accurate reflection of the accelerating water crisis in urban India. This crisis does not affect everybody equally: the upmarket Delhi of Lutyens (Delhi Imperial Zone, named after the colonial-era architect) receives 250 litres of water per person per day, the slums of Najafgarh on the city’s outskirts receive less than 30 litres per person per day.

This crisis is not so much a problem of the overall availability of water – there is enough water in India for everyone’s needs. Rather, the crisis is rooted in the patterns of consumption; the failure to regulate consumption through appropriate and equitable tariff structures; and a mindset that seeks to source water from the rural countryside rather than in conserving the water that falls on Indian cities. As long as traditional temple tanks are converted to indoor stadiums and inter-state bus terminuses in fast-growing cities, and every piece of land is looked at as real estate, the problems will continue.

In another film in our series, Water Business is Good Business, we explore the politics and economics of urban water supplies. We travel from Delhi to Indore and from Bombay to Chennai. In each instance we come across the same mantra: mega-projects are essential to bring water from distant rivers to the various cities. This is fire-fighting at best, crisis-management, not strategic planning. For even as we source water from distant locations, with all the attendant problems of displacing rural people from their homes and livelihoods, the growing needs of an exploding, upwardly-mobile urban populations will simply ensure an insatiable thirst for water and yet more water.

Excerpt from ‘Hunting Down Water’:

“October 2002. The threat of starvation deaths looms in the Baran district of Rajasthan. The Sahariya tribals eat chapatis made from dry grass seeds. Successive drought in the previous years have resulted in crop failures. Handpumps have run dry and give out coloured water after violent pumping. Grass chapatis will not take them too far and so they pack their potlis and leave.”

Migration from Mamuni village

Eyes stinging. Smoke means twilight
slipping from empty skies like a match
blown out. The third spark catches,
twigs whispering harsh nothings
at the chapattis. One pot comes to a boil,
bubbles surging through mud-red water.
This we will drink. Backs chilled, palms hot,
over the flame as we flip the toasted chapattis
of grass. We taste sapling and leaf
eyes on a distance too dark to dream about
But dry enough to smell, even from these miles
Away. By dawn there will be only this
The rhythm of walking
Under the weight of a long, focused heat.

“These things look good only on television… things about economy and saving water and all that”, say Nidhi and Madhur with a dismissive shrug, looking fresh after a rollicking rain-dance party. Our sound recordist exchanges a quick glance with us to ensure unanimity in approval of the quality of the soundbite.

Or take the case of Somabhai Patel, of Memna village in Gujarat, who owns fourteen borewells on his agricultural land, “The water was 100 feet below the ground just a few years ago, now it has gone down to 500 feet”. The municipal commissioner of Mumbai reveals startling facts to highlight the misuse of water by the urban elite, “Mumbai has fifteen-lakh cars each using fifteen litres of water per day for washing – a total of about 2.25 crore litres of potable water is used on cars alone every day”.

These statements reinforce the fact that the present water crisis is largely a crisis of our own making.

rain dance

Excerpt from Hunting Down Water:

“…Ultimately fewer and fewer farmers will control this water. Even wealthy farmers like Somabhai will have to abandon their fields at the point when water can no longer be sucked out. They will have made their profits and will move on. But in their wake they will leave behind hundreds of small and marginal farmers like Veerabhai with no water – no drinking water and no water to irrigate their fields. More and more Rewabhais will migrate in search of water and work.”


One day it happens.
The fields go dry under
your open palms.
Not all the monsoon unleashings
Or trickle-down flows
from your neighbor
Will soak them enough.
The trickle will burn into nothing.

For a moment, this knowledge
is a dazzle-blue instant
lit by hard sunlight
And you, a speck hovering, hopeful
floating high above it.
You comb the cumin leaves
With hands that recognise this moment.
As if it already occurred.

There is no turning back.
Metamorphosis takes the old self
down in milliseconds.
And you know that to stay
Means to perish. The dust cloud under your footsteps
Is small as you leave
the shed earth of your life.


Financial support for Hunting Down Water was provided by the Ford Foundation via the Small Grants Program of Winrcok International India

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData