June issue 2016
Book Review: Water in the Wilderness
Rarely is the process of writing a book as interesting as the book itself. But the business of researching Water in the Wilderness has been an exhilarating journey for a small, intrepid group of individuals (which, at times, even included a baby!), who set out to document the relationship between nature and human communities through their inter-connection with natural water sources.
Spearheaded by Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib — an ecologist and writer — the team comprised Richard Garstang, a field biologist, and Rina Saeed Khan, an environmental journalist. Ayesha Vellani with baby in tow, contributed to the photography.
The authors looked at diversity in three differing biomes: Jiwani, Hingol and Somniani for coasts; Lungh, Rangla and Cholistan for deserts; Deosai, Shandur and the glaciers for mountains. Their exploration looked at water sources from antiquity. They spoke to people who depend on these sources for their existence and the mosaic of stories they have gathered makes for a compelling read.
The ethnographic accounts coupled with meticulous research and scientific methodology make this book highly valuable, especially in light of the water scarcity that is growing alarmingly given the flawed management of natural resources. As Abidi-Habib says:
“Make no mistake, our book is an iron fist in a velvet glove…The book says put your ear to the earth and listen closely to what the land and the people are saying in Pakistan.”
The descriptive writing style of the book flows well, creating a vivid panorama of diverse habitats. It talks not just of human communities, but also of plant and animal habitats. These fragile ecosystems are hugely impacted by the growth of population and the rising value of land. Vignettes that describe the process of destruction are extremely poignant. The journey of Katerina the black stork from Siberia to the Karakoram and then to inland lakes in the Indus Valley is nothing short of heroic. Her wanton death is nothing less than a tragedy.
There are amazing nuggets of information in this thoughtful book. An underground aquifer in the Cholistan Desert has sweet paleolithic water that has been stored beneath the dessicated surface of the land for more than 15,000 years. The connection between topography, social identity and the cultural construction of a sacred landscape has been intelligently and sensitively teased out.
Water in the Wilderness contains beautiful photographs collated from a number of sources. The photographs have been reproduced in black-and-white only and perhaps the addition of some colour photographs would have enhanced the visual experience of the book.
As the team comprised primarily women, they had a unique advantage of gaining access to the women in rural communities, and therefore to their stories. As Mehjabeen says: “The book is written and imaged mostly through the eyes of women…looking, listening, sensing and understanding the elemental messages…”
In a profound sense, the undertaking was also a life-changing experience for the authors. Rina Saeed-Khan describes it as a labour of love: “It was during my travels for the book, all the way from the Makran Coast to the Shandur Pass in the high mountains, that I began my own voyage of the discovery of Pakistan.”
The book offers different things to different people. It can read as a beautifully illustrated travel book. To a development specialist it is a valuable document of water bodies and associated communities. The legends and historical detail offer much to the anthropologist and sociologist. For policy makers and politicians it offers a road map to build conservation practices along sustainable lines.
The book should be mandatory reading in academic institutions. Its wider dissemination would be facilitated by a low-cost edition. Its translation into Urdu and regional languages would take it beyond a niche readership. Certainly, Water in the Wilderness is a book that makes one fall in love with Pakistan.