Commoditization of Water in NEI and Biblical Response

Northeast India is identified as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. This is mainly due to abundant water resources in the region without which various forms of life would not be possible. The region is rich in natural resources, covered with dense forests, with large and small river systems nesting the land and is a treasure house of flora and fauna. The region is covered by the mighty Brahmaputra-Barak river systems and their tributaries. The vast river systems and small rivulets were a means of livelihood for many people of the population in the region. India with its new Look East Policy (LEP) is trying to connect with many Asian countries through construction of dams, new roads, river linking, and railways, which will all result to ecological destruction. Northeast region is considered as one of the hotspots of global dam building. The Government of India is planning to construct nearly 200 dams whereas 11 projects are in operation in Northeast India. There is proposal for constructing of more than 168 big dams in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Two mega projects on the Dihang (also called the Siang), the main stem of the Brahmaputra, and the Subansiri if constructed would pose great threat to tribal people. The Siang project, a 294-meter-high rockfill dam, would submerge 490 square kilometers, including three towns and 91 villages, and displacing 35,000 people. The Subansiri project, a 257-meter-high rockfill structure, would submerge 13 villages and one town, displacing 7,500 people. This is apart from environmental loss. Arunachal would lose 540 square kilometers of forest, and drown some of the smaller tribes’ traditional homelands as well as prestigious urban settlements.

Another major dam was on the Barak river at Tipaimukh in Manipur near the trijunction of that state with Mizoram and Assam. There is a strong opposition to it on grounds of displacement of vulnerable tribes (Hmars and Zeliangrongs), damage to plantations, and biodiversity and cultural loss. The tri-junction where the dam is constructed is also ‘sacred place’ by indigenous people. Interestingly it is estimated that Rs. 2,800 million cost would be required for raising and maintaining four battalions of any central force to provide security against the depredations of various insurgent groups. This kind of ‘development’ justifies militarisation in the region.

More than forty-five thousand large dams have been built around the world at a cost of around US$2 trillion. Close to eighty million people have been displaced from their lands by large dams. In India, although there is no consensus, it is assumed that around 3.7 million have been displaced by its 3,300 large dams. Huge population of tribals and adivasis are displaced in this process. Apart from displacement and loss of livelihoods, dam safety remains a most important consideration in the highly seismic Northeast. This region is situated in seismic Zone V, which has the highest risk of seismic activity, the building of big dams naturally poses great danger to people living downstream. The Northeast is also prone to glacial lake and debris dam outbursts which can cause flood anytime if dams are constructed.It is also found out that large dams trap organic materials and rotting vegetation from submerged lands, which in turn creates methane gas, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing significantly to global warming.

Water is turned into a commodity today and becoming one of the most profitable trades in the world. Powerful corporate water cartels have emerged and seized of every aspect of water for its profit. They put massive amounts of water in plastic bottles and sell it to us at exorbitant prices.  Internationally bottled water industry earns US$100 billion per year. Water privatisation is one of the key components of the World Bank’s Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPS) imposed on the developing countries to privatize water and receive international aid to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals. India being a signatory to World Trade Organisation (WTO) has given in to adopt Structural Adjustment Progamme (SAP) imposed by World Bank (WB) is hell-bent on privatisation of its waters. Water is no more considered as sacred but a commodity to trade and make profit. Millions of indigenous people in India are losing their life and livelihoods due to privatisation of water. Government programmes on Inter-linking rivers would cause another big headache for tribal people whose livelihoods, religion and culture would be endangered to a large scale.

 Forests are the lungs of water system, absorbing pollution and preventing flooding. Indiscriminate deforestation for commercial purpose is destroying water sources at fast pace. Many streams and rivers are drying up. Social tension is increasing over lack of water. Fresh water is at peril due to excessive use of pesticides, fertilizers, dumping of waste at river sources by tourists, industrial waste, and so on. Acid rain caused by human action is destroying the life of forest. Therefore, waters of life have been turned into waters of death.

Water if life and who owns water owns life. The importance of water is quite visible as water is mentioned in the Bible more than 700 times: less often than God but much more than faith, hope, prayer, or worship. Before there was light or sun or moon or earth there was water (Genesis 1:2). The very last image found in the Bible is the river of life flowing from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem. The concluding part of the Book of Revelation says, “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17). So the Bible begins with God and water and ends with God and Water, and between the beginning and the end- the Bible is filled with testimony that links God and water in creating, blessing, and saving work. After God’s spirit hovers over the surface of the waters at the beginning of creation, water continues to be the setting and even the medium of creation. God called the earth into being out of water, created the sky in the midst of waters and summoned living creatures to life out of water (Genesis 1: 10ff). The Garden of Eden was watered by a river (Gen. 2:10). Without water, the garden would have died, as animals, plants and human cannot survive without water. The Psalmist praises God for the water that fills the river and enriches the earth (Psalms 65).

Water is also considered as a symbol of God’s greater mercy to people not only as God’s providence in nature. Prophets Joel and Isaiah comforted their people saying that God would pour down abundant rain on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground and that their descendants will spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. Life flourishes where there is abundant water. In Hosea, much like to tribal belief people’s belief, spring rains are a sign of the presence of God. If God’s presence is felt in rains and in springs, how can we privatise water? Isaiah 55:1 invites people to come to the waters and enjoy without money, which can be interpreted as opposing the sale and buying of waters. Water is used as a symbolic of purification. In Exodus (30:18), the priests wash their feet and hands with water before they enter the tabernacle. In Leviticus, Aaron was instructed to bath in water before offering sacrifices. In John 13, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet with water. Washing with water for purification has been practiced even among the tribals as discussed above but we are so much afraid to compare such practice with biblical meaning of purification. We often tend to spiritualise all biblical teachings as if such lessons do not have any meaning for our survival here on earth.

The Bible also talks about destruction of li fe by flood waters (Genesis 6-9) as a result of human wickedness. But at the end of the incident, God promised that flood will not be used to destroy living beings again. When God has repented from unfairly action, human beings are creating drought and floods by building dams and expanding towns and cities blocking waterways. When people disobey God they suffer. Dams and privatisation to solve water problem is not the solution for it. Only through acknowledging that water is a precious gift of God can there be peace and life. The ‘water’ or ‘living water’ is a metaphor for the Spirit in the Bible. The Lord is the spring from which living water flows (Jeremiah 17:13). And whenever the river flowed out of Jerusalem everything would live (Exodus 47:9). Jesus refers to himself as the giver of ‘living water’ (John 4:10-14). Therefore control over water or denying water is literally a control over God given lives of the creatures on the earth.  Water sustains not merely human life, but also the life of animals and birds; and it sustains and is sustained by the ecological system. It plays a crucial role on planet earth. When we take water for granted, waste it, or spoil it we suffer spiritually and physically. Stand up against privatization and commoditization of water. Water is life. When we respect water as God’s gift, our rivers and reservoirs will be full with water and life would flourish.