"Old River, New Story: Solving the Cauvery Crisis"
After parking our van along the roadside, my parents and I trekked through the heat and dust to a bridge overlooking one of South India’s largest rivers: the Cauvery. In the distance, an ancient temple stood on a small land formation, and we watched colorfully-clad families mill about the grounds and along the steps, offering their gratitude for the water flowing all around them.
It was a moment of nostalgia for my mother, whose father hailed from the nearby town of Komarapalayam and was even named for the temple deity, Sangameshwar. Sangam means confluence, and indeed, at this sacred spot, the Bhavani tributary and the Amudha spring merge with the Cauvery River.
During my childhood summer vacations, this waterway loomed in the background as we traveled from town to town to visit relatives. I remember listening drowsily in the heat as my father reminisced about the Cauvery of his boyhood and then lamented her rapidly depleting waters. In a matter of decades, much of the natural infrastructure that fed the Cauvery River sustainably for thousands of years has been lost.
One of this river’s associated myths is that of a woman named Cauvery who, as the result of a divine blessing, could take on the form of water, and she accepted the task of irrigating South India during a time of drought. I visualize this compassionate and generous woman coaxing roots and plants to grow again with her gentle hands and sweet waters, bringing swathes of parched land back to life, then swelling, flowing, surging across the country. I visualize her bounty and abundance, which gave rise to the age-old Tamil saying: even if the rains fail, Cauvery will never fail.
If this woman appeared today, I wonder what she might say, witnessing the desperate scarcity of water throughout the entire river basin, the taps running dry, the once teeming tropical soil turning to sand. I wonder what she might say, learning that the river that “will never fail” now doesn’t always reach the ocean.
To me, these circumstances seem like a dismal end to Cauvery’s beautiful story—both the reality and the myth.
But is this the whole story? I wonder about that, too.
I often call myself an “aspiring optimist.” While I know instinctively that it is best to exist in a state of optimism, frankly, I struggle to do so. Especially when it comes to climate change, I worry I’m witnessing a crumbling dam that is about to unleash irrevocable global catastrophes while citizens stand by, ignoring or even disbelieving what’s occurring.
A few months ago, though, I read an article written by my favorite essayist, Rebecca Solnit, who made a compelling case for adjusting my mental framework, pointing out two pieces of recent research. First, a Pew poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe our government should indeed act to address climate change. Second, and even more surprising to me, Nature reported that most Americans think only a minority of the population supports action on climate change, but in actuality, a large majority does—indeed, 66-80%.
In short, my perception of a general indifference to climate realities was simply inaccurate.
Nevertheless, there is a certain ethos pervading today’s discussions—in news reports, social media posts, current literature, and discourse of all kinds—that makes it easy for me to pull my all-too-comfortable blanket of pessimism around me, that shuts down my intention to be hopeful. The overarching message is that it’s impossible, too late, and too difficult for humanity to reverse course.
Solnit, however, proposes that many of us need to resist the dystopian narrative that’s infected the zeitgeist, by becoming more conscious of the stories we tell ourselves and share with others. “We are hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change.” Instead, we must “find stories of a livable future, stories of popular power, stories that motivate people to do what it takes to make the world we need.”
I’ve learned that Cauvery’s story is still evolving, and in my own attempt to resist the prevailing negativity, I’m delighted to share it with you.
In the The Systems View of Life, physicist Fritjof Capra discusses how our entire material world is “a network of inseparable patterns of relationships.” Thanks to scientists like Suzanne Simard, it’s become common knowledge how forests specifically exist as a collective and cooperative intelligence, in which trees perceive one another, defend their communities, and connect and communicate through vast underground fungal networks. In other words, there’s far more going on in a forest than meets the eye, or even the microscope.
In Cauvery’s case, the abutting forests have an additional vital role: their tightly-woven root networks trap water in the earth, then release it gradually, continuously, and sustainably into the river. Those networks also anchor nutrient-rich topsoil, the thin layer of organic material covering the earth and supporting the majority of planetary life, and prevent the annual monsoons from washing it away. What’s more, the dense tree cover results in transpiration, drawing rainfall and providing yet another water source for the river. Because of this interconnected natural infrastructure, the river never dried—in the past.
Now, most South Indian tree cover has been destroyed and cleared, usually to implement non-traditional methods of agriculture, setting in motion a distressing chain of events. As forests are cleared, so are the underground root networks that once retained water to feed the river. And the topsoil once held in place by those root networks now washes away with heavy rainfall.
There are other repercussions as well. Without water or productive topsoil, farmers are simply unable to grow crops from desertifying land. Their livelihoods decimated, trapped in debt and despair, thousands of farmers have committed suicide.
One fallacy to which I’ve often succumbed is that a climate problem such as this is just too tangled and tentacular to be solved. However, Capra insists that solutions are possible when we adjust our perceptions, approaching problems from the perspective of wholeness, with consciousness of the entire “living, cognitive system.”
The Cauvery River crisis is no exception.
Cauvery Calling is a mass-scale, multi-pronged project dedicated to revitalizing the Cauvery River, whose 83,000 square kilometer basin is home to 84 million people. Shepherded by Isha Outreach, the project is first and foremost rooted in compassion for the desperation of Indian farmers and dedicated to relieving their terrible suffering. However, instead of viewing and addressing their plight in isolation, the organization has studied and analyzed the interconnected and overlapping systemic disorders that have given rise to that plight.
In a rather brilliant stroke, Isha Outreach designed a pathway that does not place farmers’ well-being at odds with environmental health, instead fusing a market-based economic solution with the necessary interventions to address the river crisis. The result is the world’s largest farmer-driven ecological movement—and one that does not simply manage existing water resources, but rather, addresses a root cause of the crisis, actually augmenting the supply of water.
Specifically, farmers are being assisted by an army of trained volunteers in transitioning to profitable tree-based agriculture. As they plant trees on their private lands with the help of volunteers, digital tools, helplines, supplies, and financial support, tree cover near rivers and streams has begun to increase. To date, the project has seen 88 million trees planted, 35 sapling nurseries built, and 172,600 farmers transitioned to tree-based agriculture, with their incomes increasing by an average of 5 times.
This project is rebinding the unraveling natural system. As tree cover increases, so does the organic matter and natural vegetation in the topsoil. As root networks rebuild, they retain water and feed the Cauvery again. All the while, farmers are regaining their livelihoods, not to mention their dignity and well-being.
The United Nations has recognized the program as a blueprint for river revitalization in the tropical world, a true nature-based solution that works with, not against, the earth’s existing cycles and structures. Momentum continues to build each year, with multiple state governments aligning their own river revitalization efforts with Cauvery Calling’s technical recommendations. In 2022, the Indian government announced an effort to revitalize 13 national rivers.
While there is still a long way to go to reverse the current trajectory of river damage and water loss, the larger point is that solutions to our most complicated environmental problems are possible with human ingenuity, creativity, willingness—and optimism. The story of rebuilding Cauvery has renewed my own hope for the future. I just may earn the title of optimist, without the qualifier.
Lately, I’ve been writing while perched over a local reservoir, enjoying how the water draws people during these summer months—picnickers, boaters, and fishermen of all ages, riding on pontoons, sailboats, and kayaks of all sizes. The unusual combination of festivity and tranquility in the air reminds me of that temple on the Cauvery, halfway across the globe.
I am thinking of the chatter of the crowds, their hearts full of gratitude. I am thinking of my own gratitude that the river, tied to my family and ancestry, will continue on. And I am imagining Cauvery, the woman of the myth, the guardian of the waterway, as she observes the dedicated souls working to restore the river’s former health and majesty, united in an effort to heal what humanity has broken. That is the story I want to tell.
Notes: After the publication of "A River Dance: Cauvery in Crisis" in Reckoning, I was asked by the editor of Poetic Earth Month to contribute a story about ecological solutions in the works. The result was this essay.