“Meghalayan Age” is a Dire Reminder That We’re Running Out of Water… Again


“Meghalayan Age” is a Dire Reminder That We’re Running Out of Water… Again

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The last time I brought up the subject of the global water shortage with a friend, he just pointed to the window, where it was pouring buckets outside, and asked me to go for a swim in the ditchwater. For average Mumbaikars, who see their cars turn into submarines during the annual Biblical deluge, (and Dilliwalas who are still stuck at Mahipalpur Extension) the idea that life as we know it could end due to us running out of water seems like bad science-fiction. Thankfully, real science came to my rescue last week, when the International Commission on Stratigraphy updated their timeline of our planet’s history to declare that, as of 4,200 years ago, we’ve been living in the Meghalayan age.

The news made headlines among communities that care about such minutiae (read: nerds) worldwide, and also became the cause of excitement in India. After all, having the last few thousands of years of the Earth’s history named after an Indian state suits certain agendas very well, seeing as we’re also trying to claim credit for the internet, flying machines, and plastic surgery from the rest of the world. So, yay! Looks like the Meghalayan age is legit and here to stay.

Now, that doesn’t mean that holidays to Cherrapunji are the defining element of human activity over the last few millennia. Instead, it means that geologists have decided to name the current period of the Earth’s timeline after a rock formation in a Meghalayan cave that provided chemical evidence of a great drought 4,200 years ago, marking a shift from the preceding Northgrippian age to the Meghalayan age. The drought was a world-changing event – its effects lasted for two centuries and it adversely affected ancient civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley.

It’s ironic that Meghalaya, a place that is literally named “the abode of the clouds” for how much rainfall it receives, should serve as a marker for an age that began with a drought. However, the news couldn’t have come at a better time. The fact that an ancient drought upended human life 4,200 years ago should serve as a stark warning for us today. The Meghalayan age commenced with a period of acute water scarcity, and it’s looking like history might be on a course to repeat itself.

168 million of India’s 1.3 billion people lack access to clean water near their homes.

Day Zero. If you don’t know what that means, but already know when Bhai’s next film will be releasing, you might want to look to the Google gods for guidance. Day Zero is the appropriately ominous sounding name given to the day a human settlement no longer has access to running water. The term gained prominence this year when it loomed over Cape Town, South Africa like a surly bouncer watching you down too many drinks. After successful water rationing measures were put in place, Cape Town managed to push back its Day Zero from July to 2019.

Phew. Close one, right? Wrong. The threat of the water crisis is no longer a distant one – it’s much much closer, distance- and time-wise.

“Large parts of India have already been living with ‘Day Zero’ for a while now,” says Mridula Ramesh, author of the book The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It, in an NDTV report from April this year. The report also cites a report from UK-based charity WaterAid, which says 168 million of India’s 1.3 billion people lack access to clean water near their homes. That’s more than one in 10 people, which is the highest percentage worldwide.

A NITI study from last month predicted that by 2020, New Delhi, Bangalore, and Hyderabad would be among the major Indian urban centres to run out of groundwater, causing the taps to run dry. And by 2030, our country’s water needs will double, so unless conservation measures are put in place soon, the India of the future could resemble the wasteland from Mad Max.

Unlike fossil fuels, water is a renewable resource. That we are managing to deplete a self-replenishing source of life is a damning indictment of our devil-may-care approach to the environment. Unless Elon Musk can take time out of calling hero divers “pedos”, and actually get to work on a feasible plan to colonise Mars, we need to recalibrate our water usage on Earth.

Otherwise, we might find the Meghalayan age ends the same way it began – with us struggling to survive on the surface of a parched planet.