We Are All Maya!

Two articles recently caught my roving eyes – both the articles were incidentally on drought and there was no direct connection whatsoever between them. One of them, historic and perhaps a bit royal, the other contemporary and of the commoner. One on the stunning Maya civilization, the second one about a typical villager in Maharashtra. What remotely connects them however is ‘draught’ – the subject I was generally looking up on the net the other day – and disconnects them from the view of ‘adaptability.’

The case of an intense drought

The case of an intense drought

Coming to the first piece, Maya civilization that dominated large parts of the Americas for hundreds of years — with mastery of mathematics and astronomy, farming, pyramid building and city planning —mysteriously collapsed  in the 8th and 9th century AD. The reason for this collapse has been hotly debated, but now scientists have the right data in hand and confirms “it had been an intense case of drought.”

In the journal Science, a graph showing precipitation (or the lack of it) over the Yucatan, between the grim years 820 to 840 that received less than 20-30 percent rainfall year-over-year – the reason for the catastrophe but more than that they found a “lack of adaptability” in the Mayan culture that wiped out an entire civilization!

Now let me quickly take you through the second story of a villager living in a remote village in western Maharashtra state. The article that appears on CNN narrates the tale of a man called Sakharam Bhagat, a Hindu man having three wives. Polygamy is illegal in India unless you’re Muslim, and the Bhagat family is Hindu. The reporters reached Bhagat’s doorstep with cameras and questions to find out the cause of his three marriages.

“Happy with his first wife” Tuki and their six children, the family faced a massive problem: There was no water. Denganmal, a remote, hilly area, isolated from other villages, routinely experiences drought-like conditions. In the summer months, the heat is so severe that wells run dry and cattle die. There is no water connection in this village, the nearest being a 12-hour-walk to go there and return home. Sakharam had no option. He married again. And again. So that wife number two and wife number three could go and collect water while Tuki managed the home and kids,” reads the report.

“I did what I did only because of water,” he tells reporters.

What’s noticeable was that these wives were widows. By marrying again, they seemed to have gained status in society once more. In many parts of rural India where traditions run deep, women are ostracized after their husbands die, such was the society there. They aren’t allowed to participate in religious functions or festivals, and in some cases, aren’t permitted to eat with the rest of the family either. However, from unnamed sources the reporters came to know these wives get the respect associated with being married women once again. “The family eats together, lives together, and we see and hear them laugh together,” they report.

It’s water — or the lack thereof — that keeps this unusual family together.

Could the Mayas have been undone by that kind of shift in rainfall and survived thereafter was a question that came to mind…

While feminists may punch me on the nose and some Fanatic Hindus or religious groups may fume at me for supposedly supporting Bhagat, there’s one lesson Mayans or we could have learned from this or even otherwise, was the need to adapt, be flexible. (Moreover Bhagat’s marrying widows in a remote village and being one with the family is something I believe is radical in some sense and deserves a praise.)

We tend to be pretty confident in our ability to see and measure what’s going on around us, to understand it, and to adjust. It’s not certain what happened to the Maya — but one thing is true despite of sophisticated systems for accessing groundwater and for collecting, storing, and distributing rainwater – and the systems were elaborate, when the rain failed to appear in the quantities they had become used to, they didn’t have the flexibility to adapt their water system to serve the millions of people who relied on it. They had built a civilization assuming a certain quantity of water, and when 20 or 30 percent less water appeared consistently, their entire way of life, perhaps especially food cultivation, became unsustainable. The authors themselves noted in the journal, somewhat dryly, that the variations in precipitation they found during the period when Maya civilization disintegrated “are not far outside the amplitude of those preceding this time interval, when the Maya civilization flourished.”

That is, the amount of rain, and the variation in that rain, wasn’t too different between dominance and destruction.

Here’s the amazing thing. We’re not actually much better off than the Mayas — except for having a wealth of data to track our own vulnerability. While Bhagat’s case is unique, spoken about as it’s been reported, are we all doing something when it comes to basic crisis like water? While a new water treatment plant, or a plan to replace aging water mains is the quick answer, it’s also about knowing what you’ll do if you’re suddenly faced with a 10 or 20 percent loss of available water, permanently.

Being ready for that kind of shift would change how we all think not only about water — but also about every other thing on this planet. Adaptability is the key, or else, we are all Maya!

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