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Water is Life

by Nick Timmerman

In this essay, Professor Timmerman shares his experience on the Overseas Faculty Development Seminar in India in January of 2023, and how the program affected his perspective on water usage and sustainability.

Water is life. A phrase used frequently in recent years as environmental challenges, including access to clean water, has become a focal point. The population in the world continues to grow, temperatures continue to rise, the climate is dramatically changing, and much of the research on causes point directly to human influence on the global environment. Few countries are at the epicenter of rapid population increases, economic industrialization and globalization, and serious environmental concerns such as air and water quality as India.

Side street in Jaipur, India

I've always pictured India as hot and humid, with jungle-like flora and fauna, with people everywhere. Traveling to northern India in January gave me a very different picture of what northern India is versus my presumptions, yet many of my preconceived ideas were met. It is a nation filled with people, particularly in the cities. When we traveled around Delhi, the joke on the bus was to add another 20-30 minutes onto whatever the estimated travel time was because of the enormous amount of traffic. Initially, traffic seemed like utter chaos to my Western mind, but over time I began to see patterns and a natural flow of people that was even present when we walked in enormous crowds. There was order in the chaos, the order of people going about their daily life as I do in the U.S. The perceived chaos was frustrating and yet beautiful.

Visiting Delhi in the winter presented a drastically different picture than my preconceived ideas about climate and weather. It was cold, overcast, and thick smog and the smell of smoke clung to our clothes and chilled us to the bone. I was not prepared for the cold, the wind chill, and the bone-chilling humidity, even though we were warned to dress appropriately. The cold continued with our travels to Lucknow, but the air quality improved slightly from Delhi. I was met with the realization of the vastness of India when we traveled to Jaipur and then Agra, where the temperatures were delightful, the humidity was low, and the air quality significantly improved. We traveled to different cities via plane and bus. The bus rides across the countryside from Jaipur to Agra and Agra to Delhi gave me another unique perspective of rural India, far away from the major population centers. The contrast between the urban and rural was cathartic and another reminder that my presumptions of India were incorrect.

Amer Stepwell in Jaipur, India

The entire focus of the faculty development seminar was “urban sustainability” with a focus on environmental issues directly linked to water. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, and the Flint Water Crisis made international news in 2014, so I am familiar with water quality problems. As an environmental historian, I’ve researched and studied environmental racism, environmental exploitation, industrial disasters, environmental degradation, etc., and yet witnessing the overwhelming challenges present across India, I left the seminar in awe about the magnitude of issues related to water quality. We met with several individuals, researchers, academics, government agencies, and non-profits working tirelessly to confront these challenges. They recognized the magnitude, the societal pressures, and the governmental bureaucracy that can be a hindrance or helpful. Poverty, the caste system, religious beliefs, and quickly shifting populations all strain what can or cannot be done to address the issue of clean water. Using my limited knowledge of the environmental problems in India and my own work on environmental history as a frame of reference, I could not identify where to start. However, amid what seemed to me as an insurmountable challenge, we were presented with hope. It was emotionally challenging to walk around the slums and witness how people live in extreme poverty. Meeting and interacting with women who faced discrimination, abuse, and mutilation was hard. Yet, their stories were filled with hope and empowerment.

Amer Stepwell in Jaipur, India

I wanted to go to India and be a part of this seminar for a number of reasons, and one that was at the top of my list was my desire to learn more about water and environmental issues around the globe and how countries are addressing these issues. I had the opportunity in 2019 to attend an international conference in Shijiazhuang, China. Both China and India have huge populations, and their environmental issues are multiplied due to this fact. Both nations also have drastically different environments across the enormous space within their borders. It was a unique international comparison and one that I want to continue. I was also drawn to an opportunity to explore the deep history of India. As an American and a historian of the United States, I can attest to my country's youth in comparison to the ancient history present in India. It was amazing getting to see sites such as Shahi Bauli Stepwell in Lucknow and the Amer Stepwell in Jaipur, and to learn about the civilizations that emerged along the Yamuna River and the Gomti River.

I was struck by the variety of tools and resources implemented to help communities across India access clean water. From small filtration systems that can be constructed with local material to water treatment facilities, there seemed to be a widespread effort to attempt to meet people where they are at in society. This is a point that was also a central underlying theme in the seminar, how individuals are trying to make a difference at a very personal level.

I am deeply grateful to the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) and the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) for the resources and support provided to me to be a part of this faculty development seminar. India is a country rich with history, heritage, religion, traditions, and culture. It is a country that serves as an excellent case study for studying water and environmental issues, and is an excellent space to collaborate with individuals working relentlessly to address some of our biggest challenges facing the future of our planet.


Nick Timmerman is an Assistant Professor of History at Langston University in the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities. His research and teaching interests are in U.S. Environmental History with a focus on African American, Native American, and Public History. In the Fall of 2023, Nick will begin a new appointment as History Instructor at Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College .


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