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Protecting Waterways While Meeting Urban Needs

By Fran Silverman

Lav Kanoi grew up in Kolkata, India, where the Hugli River, a tributary of the Ganges, empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges is widely revered in Indian society, but development and the impacts of climate change are putting pressure on the health of the river at a time when supply and demand for water is at a critical juncture. The river’s tributaries flow through some of the largest cities in India, including New Delhi, where Kanoi, a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of the Environment and the Department of Anthropology, is researching how water is managed. 

New Delhi, which encompasses the national capital region of India, is home to more than 33 million people, and its population is steadily increasing. More than 1,200 million gallons per day (MGD) are needed to adequately supply residents, but only 900 MGD are available, according to Delhi governmental data. There are ways to increase supply, but it requires accounting for, and accommodating, a wide range of social, political, and historical issues and local perspectives, Kanoi says.

“There is this assumption that if there is a city, there will be water. But cities are fast getting separated from natural resources. The rivers, when they come downstream from the mountains to the cities, go past settlements, and they’re frothy and acidic and polluted. The flow is poor, the chemical composition is bad. There’s very little life left in the river. Cities have become spaces where there is so much human construction, so much human artifice, and people are literally thirsting for water,” he says. 

“There is this assumption
that if there is a city, there
will be water. But cities are
fast getting separated from
natural resources.”

Lav Kanoi

Centuries, even millennia ago, communities had a tradition of maintaining water supplies by capturing rainwater, but as cities expanded, construction projects covered up water wells and paved over natural areas of absorption, causing rain to run off into streets and over pavements instead of being harvested for use. As populations grew and industry expanded, the rivers became more polluted, while residents also continue to use the waterways for religious and other cultural purposes. Lakes and ponds also were filled in for development. Urban areas became dependent on water from sources far outside their boundaries, and supplying water to cities became a responsibility of the state.

“Because water is a centralized service that the state provides, it inadvertently results in people feeling that they are not responsible for the maintenance of water sources because the government takes care of it,” Kanoi says. “This alienates people from their natural resources. It breaks a cultural link to take care of things that take care of you.”

Many urban areas face similar challenges as they grapple with sustainability goals. Infrastructure and development often bump up against conservation and restoration efforts, he says.

“The concept sustains while demanding change, calls for inclusion while excluding, and is applied both top-down and bottom-up,” Kanoi notes in a 2022 article published in Sustainability that he co-authored. 

Often, moral demands are made on individuals and communities to make changes to their lives that discount larger contributions to unsustainable practices. Similarly, the “social worlds that infrastructure brings into being are often highly ambivalent with uneven outcomes,” Kanoi says in a paper published in Environmental Research.

Inequitable infrastructure further complicates the issue and can create conflict within communities. What is needed is local input and control of natural resources, he adds. 

“Governments can’t work without people. Along with global best practices, we need local solutions, people coming together in the local spaces, and that requires citizens be given a voice in decision-making,” he says.

Michael Dove, Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology, says Kanoi’s research pushes current work in urban ecology in new directions.

“He challenges current work on infrastructure to look beyond dams and pipes to cultural history and to the mundane, everyday water bodies and systems that often get overlooked, not only Delhi’s lakes, but also its tanks, stepwells, and ‘nalas,’ or drains,” Dove says.

Kanoi, who is fluent in six languages and has translated publications from Latin, Hindi, and Bengali, serves as graduate co-coordinator of Yale’s Environmental Humanities Program and a student representative to the YSE Alumni Association Board.

“Lav is a superb convener of interdisciplinary conversations. As the facilitator of our events, he sets a gracious and welcoming tone, appreciating the strengths of participants coming from music, the arts, history, architecture, or anthropology,” says Paul Sabin, coordinator of the Yale Environmental Humanities Program and a professor of history and American studies.

Kanoi says he has enjoyed exploring the humanistic perspective in environmental sciences across a wider scale.

“When citizens come together in a place where they live and work, they are empowered and that creates a culture of sustainability,” he says. “It’s a way forward.”