Vandana Shiva is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, an independent public industry research group, and Navdanya,  a grassroots conservation movement in India. She received her doctorate in physics from the University of Western Ontario, but when it comes to defining what she does, an entire collection of labels is required: activist, philosopher of science, ecological advisor, teacher, eco-feminist, science policy advocate, author, and organic farmer.

For several decades, Dr. Shiva has fought all over the world for biodiversity and for the rights of all people to food and water. She has received numerous awards, including the1993 Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize), the Global 500 Award of the United Nations Environment Programme and the Earth Day International Award of the United Nations. Our own Ryan Case was fortunate enough to have worked with Dr. Shiva in India. Ryan recently caught up with her to discuss the future of water and life on our planet.

Within the complex subject of climate change, most people tend to focus on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In what major ways is humanity’s management of our freshwater resources affecting the Earth’s climate both on local scales and globally?

The activities that intensify fossil fuel use, by and large, also intensify water use.  Industrial agriculture is a very good example.  Industrial agriculture uses ten times more water than equivalent ecological farming systems.  As a result, we not only get the emissions of greenhouse gases from the fossil fuel use, but also the desertification of soils and the destruction of the ability of soils to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Farms that are chemically fertilized–and chemical fertilizers also come from fossil fuels–are farms that have absolutely no water holding capacity.  Without that water holding capacity, if you are hit with a drought, you have no ability to survive it; if you are hit by a flood, the flood intensity is higher.  So water use and climate impact are very intimately linked.

In addition, there are only two sources of water for intensive irrigation: one is making large dams, and the second is draining aquifers.  Large dams are increasingly being recognized as major sources of greenhouse gas emissions because they stagnate the water.  They create algal blooms in the stagnant reservoir and I’ve seen this happen with the dam on the Ganges, the Tehri Dam, where fresh blue water is now a stagnant, rotting, stinking green pool.

Over 60% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed in the last hundred years. Considering the critical role they play in the hydrologic cycle, what strategies do you think might help us to preserve our remaining wetlands and to restore the ecological function lost by the vast destruction?

The most important thing is that wetlands are destroyed either by urban sprawl, infrastructure, or by expansion of industrial agriculture.  Industrial agriculture is not able to deal either with soils that have too much moisture or soils that have too little moisture.  It deals with a very, very narrow niche as opposed to ecological farming.  For example, we have wetlands in India where in one season you can cultivate shrimp and in the next season you cultivate rice and the wetland is a food producing system but you also conserve it as a wetland.  So the first step we need to take to protect ecological functions of wetlands is to stop the encroachment.  This must be treated as a crime.  It is, by and large, illegal in most countries because there is a wetlands convention, but it hasn’t been stopped and won’t stop until people realize that a wetland is vital to our water security and our ecological security.

The second most important thing that needs to be done is to recognize the indigenous, traditional uses of the wetlands which combine conservation and production so that you don’t destroy wetlands, treating them as wastelands. We need to create new wetlands, create new areas for storage of water, and try as best as we can–even though we can’t be as smart as nature–to increase wetlands wherever possible through human intervention.

In North America and Europe, ecological restoration is gaining more value in the eyes of the public and in the marketplace. How do you see the restoration of the Earth happening in places where the environmental degradation is perhaps far worse and where there may not be the money or the local expertise for it to happen there in the same way?

Well, there are two kinds of expertise. One is the form of professional expertise, but in my experience of forty years as an ecological activist, I have found that local expertise is very, very sophisticated.

No one knows local ecosystems better than indigenous communities, people who have lived there for millennium. Therefore, what I would suggest in countries where the public resources aren’t huge is first not allowing the destruction of vulnerable and fragile ecosystems. That’s where it becomes extremely important that people start movements in parts of the country to protect the natural resources. Where the ecosystems have been degraded, rehabilitate them through community participation. The minute the community is involved, communities contribute and you need less external resources. You can either leave everything to capital and financial inputs or you can have large participation of community with a slight intervention of financial inputs that are necessary to do certain pieces of work.

With all of the traveling you do, I believe you must have a good pulse on humanity’s ability to adapt in situations of water scarcity. Can you give two examples of the most impressive adaptations you have encountered, one in a natural situation of scarcity and one in an anthropogenic condition?

In the natural example of scarcity, I can tell you it is the ability of the people of Rajasthan to live in a desert and yet create one of most sophisticated cultures, create some of the best agriculture we know through conserving every drop of rain. They get very little rain–less than four inches–but when they get it and where they get it, they conserve every drop in systems of conservation that absolutely blow my mind.

Navdanya, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology

I head, has translated an amazing book, written in Hindi by Anupam Mishra, called the Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, in which we basically say in Rajasthan, a desert, ‘people convert their sweat into water, into fresh water for maintaining not just a life, but a sophisticated and good life.’

In terms of adaptation to water scarcity as a result of climate instability, a wonderful example is the regions and communities who have saved seeds with us through Navdanya.

Navdanya means ‘nine seeds.’ Two years ago we had one of the most severe droughts in India. These communities have saved seeds of millets, which use only 250mm of rainfall compared to the 2500 needed for growing a Green Revolution (rice) paddy.

So the rain had been reduced by 70% by the drought, but the water demand for the crop they were growing had reduced to 1/10 and they could have a wonderful crop. In the process, they realized that these old seeds that were called primitive are actually seeds for the future.

You have invested much of your time and energy in defending the rights of the poor and the planet from the corporate exploitation of water resources. There is no doubt that when there is huge profit potential and regulations are lacking, or governments corrupt, profits are being put first and the basic, vital needs of people and planet second. What do you see as being the most effective way to reconcile this situation, where you have the poor and the planet, both often without political voice, versus enormous sums of corporate money and power?

I’ve been part of movements where people without money, and people without a voice in the international system, were still able to stop the corporate theft and corporate hijack of water.

One example is the village called Plachimada in Kerala, where Coca-Cola set up a plant and was extracting 1.5 million liters of water per day. Due to the running dry of local wells, as well as the pollution of local water, women were walking 10 miles to retrieve water.  Then a woman from the village said, “Why should we walk further and further for this company to maximize its profits?  This company must shut down so we can have our water.” She started a protest outside the gates of Coca-Cola.

A year after they had been protesting, they invited me and I realized how unequal the fight was. I started to do what I normally do in such circumstances: wake up the people in places of power, wake up the local government, ask them to join the women’s movement, create strategies for legal action, get wider political support. And the women shut the Coca-Cola plant down.

A second big case was the World Bank along with one of the world’s biggest privateers, Price Waterhouse Coopers, the government of India, and the government of Delhi, were all hell bent to privatize Delhi’s water supply. When we realized this was going to happen, we organized a movement for water democracy and we created a very broad alliance of people who were displaced by the dam from where the water would come.

The alliance included communities located in the very sacred pilgrimage spots like Haridwar, where the sacred Ganges flows; farmers who were going to lose their water; urban slum dwellers who were going to lose their public supply of water; and even the rich, bringing them in by asking, “Do you want a higher flow of water at the cost of farmers, the poor, and nature?” We created this alliance and we were able to shut down the privatization of Delhi.

So people might not have a voice in distant places, but when they join hands they can create a powerful force locally and that local force can then have reverberations in very distant places.

In the United States, every citizen has, at least in theory, a political voice. What will it take to motivate people to advocate for better water resource management when, for the most part, we here are so accustomed to having plentiful access to clean water.

I think we live in times when none of us can isolate ourselves from the web of life that supports us. None of us can think, “I am just a person, a resident of this village, of this town, this particular place,” because the most important consciousness for our times is the recognition that we are part of Earth, and the flow of Earth is a flow of water. Our water today is linked to raindrops far away in space and in time.

That consciousness of being interconnected through the hydrological cycle is an awareness we each need to have to live our life as Earth citizens. Once you do that, you realize that my tap might have water flowing, but if the system is depriving people of water far away, then I have to have solidarity with them. If Coca-Cola is depriving the women of Plachimada their water, then Coca-Cola is not just a problem for them, it is also a problem in my life. Even in areas which have never had a problem of freshwater availability, issues like fracking will force us to join in recognition that we are part of Earth.

So these two leaps of our consciousness-that we are part of the Earth and we are part of a water cycle-allow us to think beyond our narrow isolated places.

What advice would you give to those in the professional community of planners, architects and engineers?

I would give a one line advice: bow to the water cycle.  So much of water planning has been based on the idea of human beings conquering water systems, conquering the river with a damn, conquering the water of a distant place to overcome a scarcity somewhere else.  This idea of conquest has guided too much of water thinking-this idea of owning water as property, and the idea of profiting from it.  I think these are extremely crude, extremely primitive ways of thinking and any water expert, professional, or policy person should 1) recognize the water cycle and 2) recognize that we don’t create water, water creates us.  That is why I say ‘bow to the water cycle’.

What would be your advice for students who are deeply concerned about the future of our water resources but don’t know what to do about it or what to study to enable them to do something about it?

I think the beauty about water is it’s everywhere and most of our bodies are water and most of the planet is water.  So if you start to look, you can find a water issue everywhere. You can find it as a local activist in your community. You can find it in subjects of study no matter where you begin.  You could begin in political science and politics over water – water wars is the subject of my book and those are becoming important issues. You can begin with geography – the entire pulse of the land is water. You can begin with agriculture and work on ways to create more water-conserving systems of farming. So it doesn’t matter where you begin.  You can, if you are really seeking water, find the water.

How would you summarize your perspective of the state of the world’s water and what might lie ahead?

I think there are two trends related to water resources, and all resources on the planet.  One is a trend that’s coming from higher consciousness, a trend of conservation, a trend of equal sharing, and a trend of caring for our water bodies.  There’s another trend of irresponsibility, of water carelessness, of water abuse.  Abuse for me is also the idea of trying to control water.  That is abusing water because water has its own life, it is has its own integrity, it has its own flow.

That second trend is butchering the earth and destroying places that are vital for the water system.  I am very happy that we were able to play a role in supporting a major movement in Orissa where a mountain that is the source of 22 streams was going to be mined for bauxite, which would have killed that water system. The mountain is called Niyamgiri  and it is a sacred mountain for the indigenous communities. We were able to stop the mining.

Mining is a very big abuse to water systems. Mining destroys water in the mining itself; mining destroys water in the processing into steel, into aluminum, into gold, into whatever else.  Hundreds and thousands of tons of water are used in this type of processing, and tar sands is a clear example of how the entire water system of the area can be polluted.

We have reached a time where we need to assess every human action on the basis of its impact on water. We have taken water for granted and we can’t take it for granted anymore. It has become the single most important reason for child and infant deaths in the world. It is the biggest depravation: the depravation of water to people who have as equal a right to water as the richest person because biologically, we are all equal. Financially we might have been made unequal, but biologically, we are one species and we have an equal right to water. Every action needs to be measured against what it does to the water cycle.

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