Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rivers in the news

Monday's NYT had a couple of revealing articles about the fate of waterways. One was an account of efforts to rethink Bombay/Mumbai's perennially vexed relation to the water, thanks to a couple of UPenn-based landscape architects, Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur. Their book-and-exhibit project is called Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary: "Ms. Mathur and Mr. da Cunha ... said they set out on their work in part to provide an alternative interpretation of Mumbai — to have it be recast as an estuary where salt and fresh water coexist rather than as an island that has to be protected from the water."

Their findings show that a series of natural features like mangrove swamps and interconnected creeks once protected and shaped Mumbai, just as the bygone swamps of the Mississippi River delta once protected New Orleans. But those defenses were weakened over the years, dating to the days of British rule, as swamps were filled in, land was reclaimed from the sea and creeks were narrowed or diverted.

The historical maps and documents show little appreciation for those long-lost natural features. Most old maps make no mention of swamps, which were often labeled simply as “badlands.” There are few images of the trees and plants that made up these areas.

Moreover, boundaries between land and sea were never drawn as they existed during the monsoon, when the wetlands of the estuary expanded, only as they stood during the summer or winter. “The monsoon was seen as foul weather,” Ms. Mathur said. And “all of the planning is based on fair weather maps.”
Mathur and da Cunha have a series of fascinating suggestions for how to deal with an estuarial landscape, short of trying to restore it to its primordial status. Needless to say, their proposals have not yet had an impact on official planning in Mumbai, where proposals for flood control continue to dominate.
From abundance to scarcity: the other article reports on the drying-up of the Euphrates in Iraq, consequence of a prolonged drought and up-stream damming projects by the governments of Turkey and Iraq.
Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Syria; a two-year drought; and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now. The shrinking of the Euphrates, a river so crucial to the birth of civilization that the Book of Revelation prophesied its drying up as a sign of the end times, has decimated farms along its banks, has left fishermen impoverished and has depleted riverside towns as farmers flee to the cities looking for work.
The water-shortage exacerbates Iraq's cultural and political identity-crisis. In a region where massive hydro-projects--from Nasser's Aswan dam in Egypt to Saddam's draining of the marshlands--have always been testimonies to political power, the current scarcity testifies to the weakness of the Iraqi state, both internally and in relation to its neighbors. Any effort to think through the future of development in the region has to be linked to reworking the hydro-regime.

Encouraging post-script: I'd just finished this post, when I glanced over at my blogroll to discover this gem on Dot.Earth: "A River Runs Under It." "A community’s relationship with its waterways is a reflection of its stage of development.," Andy Revkin writes, spotlighting worldwide efforts to daylight buried streams.

No comments:

Post a Comment