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Mridula Ramesh: "Business leaders exist on a spectrum on 'water/climate awareness'"

A few business leaders “get” it and are proactive in managing their exposure, some see it as a cost of doing business, and the rest don’t get it - a singularly foolish thing to do in a water-scare country which is rapidly heating up.

February 20, 2022 / 11:23 AM IST
Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai and an angel investor.

Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai and an angel investor.

In Watershed: How We Destroyed India's Water and How We Can Save It, author Mridula Ramesh makes a case for water management to avert not just the impending water crisis but also a potential financial crisis brought on by water scarcity. She traces the 4,000-year history of water in India, to contextualise the current problems and offer solutions that might be good for the environment, good for society and good for business.

Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute and an angel investor (she has also previously authored The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do about It).

In an email interview, Ramesh explained how our relationship to water has become dysfunctional, what industry and individuals can do about it, and how she measures the climate impact of the start-ups she invests in.

You've said that our relationship to water has become dysfunctional. Could you give an example?

What lies at the heart of a dysfunctional relationship? A lack of understanding for the other party, and a lack of respect. We don’t understand our water in India – else why we would we grow a crop (paddy) that needs more than 1,240 mm of water in a place that gets between 400 to 600 mm of water (Punjab/Haryana)? The groundwater that bridges this water gap is free – such undervalued groundwater is used with abandon and depleting fast.

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Another example is that why would we chop down the forests on slopes that receive metres of rainfall in a few months – after all, without the stabilizing influence of forests, those slopes can and do slide down during the torrential rains.

Based on your research, what are some of the reasons why there isn’t enough urgency about water management – after all, we’ve been reading for years about frothing lakes, flooding cities, and dropping groundwater levels?

There are two levels at which one can answer this question: at the government/political level, as the several examples I have covered in the book clearly show, water provision has been rewarded by voters, but when political leaders have tried to manage water, their efforts have not always been met with political victory.

At the personal level, most of us believe that managing water is not our responsibility (after all, why would you manage something that is free and largely invisible), so we only grapple with it when there is a crisis. The ironic tragedy is that if only we each managed our water, the crisis will bite so much less.

You begin the book by noting how we once had a functional relationship with water – our regional cuisine, water storage systems, etc., all reflected the reality of how much water was available in that region/season. Do you we think some of those traditional methods and knowledge around managing water can be brought back at scale?

The example of what Rajendra Singh has achieved shows some level of scale is possible, but the farmer protest movement shows how powerful the push back will be against any change in crop patterns. So it is possible, but will not be easy.

Watershed by Mridula Ramesh Book coverWhat is the role of industry here?

Industries, or rather business leaders, exist on a spectrum on “water/climate awareness”. A few “get” it, are pro-active in managing their exposure and impact, and are therefore resilient. Some “tick mark” it – see it as a cost of doing business and move on. The rest don’t get it. This is a singularly foolish thing to do in a water-scare country which is rapidly heating up. Because industry, where it exists, tends to be a major user of water in its immediate locality. Which exposes it to a risk of protests and brand destruction in dry areas. Something one of the world’s iconic brands found out the hard way as I have covered in the book.

If we flip this about, managing water and climate risks are not very difficult to do once we factor them into the business model (and I’m speaking from personal experience here, managing two companies).

You have also talked about the changes businesses need to make to become more sustainable, and how this could affect multinational corporations (MNCs) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in very different ways. Is there a solution to this problem?

MNCs will face direct pressure from investors and customers as I have written in the book. SMEs, on the other hand, lack that pressure and are subject to high price pressure which makes them likely to give a short shrift to environmental compliances. One option is for the larger buyers to play a hand-holding and supporting role. The other is for government to have some form of regulation to ensure buyers pay a fair price (and pay promptly) to SMEs. Easier said than done, however.

Is there a startup in this space that you are really excited about.

I won’t name just one, because I have several that I find very cool in this space. One works with farmers to get them higher prices for sustainable practices, including conserving water. They have got a large number of Punjabi farmers to bite. That is one. The other one I have recently invested in treats sewage in Bengaluru to a very high standard and sells it to industries. Both of these herald what I hope will become a larger wave of innovating on water in the future.

You’ve invested in green startups in the past. Could you tell us some of the metrics you use to gauge the impact that a startup might have for water management?

M3 (a cubic meter) of water saved, or added value per m3 of water used. For example, one of the start-ups mentioned in the book, operates micro warehouses in Bihar and Jharkhand and has brought down the loss in stored rice from 25% to 5%. Since this start-up works with 31,000 tonnes of grain, the saved rice saves about 18 million m3 of water a year. Since Bihar has a fairly low rice yield, each tonne of rice saved saves that much more water. The saved water is enough water for 1.5 lakh households a year from the actions of a single company.

You’ve written that one of the key problems in managing the country’s water is the lack of good data. What do you think is missing and what would you propose to improve on this?

Much of the data in my book relies on WRIS, which has made life much easier for water researchers and the general public... The problem lies with the black hole that is water demand. WRIS provides rainfall and groundwater levels at the district level, but is more silent on how much and where and by whom the water is used. This is the gap that needs to be bridged, if we are going to make any headway on managing our demand, and thereby building our resilience. To use an analogy, how do we know if we are financially secure or how to improve our financial security if we only vaguely know how much the neighborhood earns, but don’t know how much we, personally, spend?

You’ve mentioned that climate change policy often talks in terms of carbon emissions but the climate speaks the language of water. What changes would you ideally like to see in this respect?

Almost every climate conversation underscores the need to cut emissions. This is important, no doubt. But in doing so, we overlook the reality that we appear to have crossed certain climate thresholds. Just witness the rising cadence of storms and floods in the past few decades.

Why do I say that the climate speaks through water? Consider the rising incidence of storms and the paradoxical (until you understand India’s water) rising incidence of drought. Or the rising incidence of forest fires (caused by less rain and less soil moisture). Or rising sea levels and melting glaciers. In India – arguably one of the most vulnerable countries to this warming – the water voice of the warming climate is shouting loudly. Which only means we need to speak far more than we do today of adaptation, where water takes centre stage.
Chanpreet Khurana Features and weekend editor, Moneycontrol
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