What it means to raise a child in the era of climate change

By Ramya Mohanakrishnan

“That is how you get water in your bucket,” I say as I close the book, feeling awestruck on behalf of my four-year-old. We are in our favourite library, having just finished a charming book on how water ends up in the plumbing pipes in houses. It is as detailed as it could be for a preschooler involving only taps, pipes, lakes, rivers, oceans, and the sun. My son, however, is confused, “But Ammayou said we didn’t have any water today. Are our pipes not working?”

Bangalore, until recently, had been hailed the City of Lakes. She had been knocked off that pedestal when her lakes started foaming and burning, a surreal protest to the puzzling levels of pollution. The city that had once been brimming with pristine water has fallen into suffering, suffocating under the increasing weight of its population. She does not have much more water to offer.

It is ironic that we had chosen to read the book on this particular day. Just this morning, the large tank that holds water for our homes had been empty. The once majestic Kaveri river’s water had trickled down like tears, my neighbour poetically reported. The water tankers that usually bring us some relief were busy. After all, demand had skyrocketed with the crippling summer’s heat. We had been left with two buckets of water for each household. This, along with the water I had squirrelled away from water purifiers and air conditioners, would have to suffice until the tanker could arrive. I sigh as I mumble about rivers and lakes drying up. 

“How will I bathe tomorrow?” his eyes widen. 

I give him my best reassuring smile, his anxiety making me feel guilty. “We will just have to use as little water as possible today. And we can pray.” I cannot help but marvel at his innocence when he puts his hands together, closes his eyes and prays, “Please God. Let Water Lorry Uncle come today with the lake water.”

We can’t afford to shower every day, I tell my son. It’s a luxury we’ve reserved for rare days.

My son’s queries take me back to the time when I first saw a shower in a bathroom. I must have been five and I was immediately taken by it. I saw it as instant rain which could turn my morning baths into adventures with waterfalls. I remember begging my mother, “No buckets please.” 

Today, I say the opposite. We can’t afford to shower every day, I tell my son. It’s a luxury we’ve reserved for rare days. “Turn off the tap,” our panic stricken voices yell at him the rest of the day. I have a rubber band firmly bound on our soap dispenser for decreased output. Lesser soap accidents mean less water used. My son doesn’t know the joy of having a hose pipe spray water directly on his torso, even if only for a couple of minutes before us adultschase him away. He uses a bucket and mop to wash the verandah with his father instead. The valves of most taps in the house are half shut to avoid precious water from gushing out. 

I overcompensate now, as a fully functioning (well, I try) adult. My middle-class parents made me do my bit as a child – switch off lights and running appliances when not in use, use water sparingly. It doesn’t seem enough anymore. My spawn knows to put the dry and wet wastes in different dustbins. He grew up partly on a lovingly collected wardrobe of cloth diapers. He now fishes out his steel or bamboo straw when he wants a drink in a restaurant. “Global warming means that the earth has a fever from too much smoke. We should ride more bicycles,” the kid declares nonchalantly. He knows. At four, he knows what I had learnt in my 30s. His parents tell him, his school tells him, his cartoons tell him. Because they have to. Occasionally though, I do give in to his need to use a colorful plastic straw. Because how much can you explain to a child, anyway?

The news is relentless. “Seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world belong to India”, my phone notifications scream at me. We should stop doing road trips and start using more public transport, I piously preach to my husband. “The air indoors in Delhi is better than the ‘fresh’ air outdoors,” another notification piles on. So much for kids playing in parks. Had I been selfish on those glorious Diwali mornings, when I would wake up at 4am to unleash one firecracker after another? How could I have not foreseen what the mountains of accumulated plastic covers in our home really meant? I had been raised to clean up after myself at home, to throw any trash on our floor into the dustbin. But I had never bothered to learn what happens to the trash once it actually leaves the house. By the time I realised that garbage, once created, could never fully be destroyed, the damage had already been done. 

How could I have not foreseen what the mountains of accumulated plastic covers in our home really meant?

On some days though, I can’t help but wonder, do my dreams of hopping on airplanes with my child to visit places across the world nullify all my efforts to save something for him? The more I think about it, the more I realise that this question sums up the reality with which I raise my child. I beat my chest about raising temperatures while making sure my son is indoors, cooled down by the running air conditioner. When I read about nations clamouring for the newly exposed resources from the melting Arctic, a sick knot forms in my stomach. This knot, however, seems to loosen when we think about buying a car with better fuel economy. Lesser fuel is still fuel, the nagging voice in my head says. 

I know, from experience now, that for every bit of fleeting comfort we seek now, we trade in a piece of the future. A future that would someday be my son’s and maybe my grandchild’s reality. I am privileged enough to be able to afford these expensive, sustainable practices; to even consider this problem in the scope of my everyday life. In a country like India where basic sanitation is still inaccessible to a section of the population, change cannot come from the people. Governing bodies need to make the grand gestures, the tough calls. 

Until then, however, the child will continue to lead his comfortable and contradicting life. A life in which he knows that everything he wants, even if across the world, is at his fingertips. A life in which he also knows that he might not have enough water to use the toilettomorrow.

This article was originally published on Arré.

Climate ChangeEarthSustainable development