What will happen when use of water outstrips supply?

Dr B K Mukhopadhyay

(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at m.bibhas@gmail.com)

Are we very serious about ensuring energy and water security- the major challenge before the globe? Though efforts are on towards this direction, a real thrust and the resultant positive effect is yet to be witnessed. The situation today is not that bad when viewed from consciousness angle. Still, coordinated efforts are conspicuous by their very absence.

Only 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year.

The positive development on this score is that urgent appeal from a number of leading global institutions is: better integration of water and energy policies to help find solutions to looming shortages. “There is a growing realization that we can no longer think about energy and water separately,” according to Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute in California.

On this score the ADB’s (Asian Development Bank) observations are very important to note – water will play an increasing role as a power source for Asia but supplies are already under threat. Accordingly, China and India, the world’s most populous nations, are expected to have a combined shortfall of one trillion cubic metres (35 trillion cubic feet) of water within next 20 years. Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam are already under “water stress” conditions, meaning they are experiencing periodic or limited water shortages.

The World We Live In

A recent survey of more than 700 US utilities firms by Black & Veatch showed that for the first time, water supply was the top environmental concern among the respondents. Asia is likely to face the same problems. “It will truly be exacerbated in this region because of the urban densities that are there. You’ve got tremendous numbers of highly concentrated urban areas,” as rightly observed by Rodman.

In India, for example, though accessibility to drinking water has increased considerably during the last decade in particular, yet around 10 percent of the rural and urban population still does not have access to regular safe drinking water and during critical summer especially the condition goes from bad to worse in many parts of the country still. Excessive extraction of ground water to meet agriculture, industrial and domestic demands is steadily harming the rural and urban settlements. Fears are expressed that India will be more water stressed and per capita availability will decline to 1600 cubic meters by next couple of years. Side by side, the grave concern here is the fact that the total cost of environmental damage in India, as per World Bank estimates, amounts to around 4.5 percent of GDP and of this 59 percent results from the health impact of water pollution!

A Global Matter Indeed

It is not a problem in India alone – it is a global phenomenon – an area where immediate adequate attention is to be paid so that the things do not go from bad to worse. It is essential for survival – more important than anything else – the most crucial factor considered from the point of view of environment protection, poverty alleviation and promotes development in as much as now globally more than two and half billion people live in the most abysmal standards of hygiene and sanitation. Wastage of water and absence of regular clean water supply not only to the burgeoning metropolis but to huge rural regions also simultaneously coexists. Mighty Colorado river, North America, seldom meets the sea. One third of the US and one fifth of Spain still suffer from water stress. Central Africa’s Lake Chad, supporting the very life of 30 million plus people has already shrunk one-tenth of its former size, the negative contributory factors being climate change, drought, mismanagement and over use, among others.

In fact: water scarcity already poses a great threat before economic growth, human rights and national security. As per recent UN estimates around 1.2 billion people – around 20 percent of the world population – were living in areas where the limits of sustainable water use had already been reached or breached. It is high time that the issue needs to be placed high on the global agenda. In fact the world is urgently required to adapt to the reality.

There is still enough water for all of us if and only if we keep it clean and share the same. In fact, we face the challenge that we must make safer stores of water available to all.

That is why the immediate need is there to invest in reliable, proven and advanced water purification system that guarantees the public – in rural and urban areas – safe and pure drinking water at all times. Latest technology available on this score must be extensively made use of in a time-bound manner to protect the living beings from getting crushed via pollution routes.

Though water contains organic and inorganic impurities, the main source of diseases are the organic impurities which enter into the water through the soil from cesspools, through manure, or through sewers emptying their contents into the rivers – from which many cities, in particular get their drinking water supply. Added to this, the very piping system into the home, unclean water tanks, improper drainage and waste disposal systems, also contribute to impure or contaminated water. Again, presence of excess inorganic matters (iron, lead salts, etc) also nicely paves the way for various ailments and diseases to occur like constipation, dyspepsia, colic, paralysis, kidney ailment, and sometimes even death.

As opposed to popular perception, hardness of water is not a risk to health so long as it does not contain disease-causing pathogens and bacteria. Especially, during summer and rainy seasons the position goes from bad to worse – water-borne diseases become rampant. Extreme hot and humid environment are favourite bacteria-breeding seasons. Dangerous bacteria produce deadly diseases like jaundice, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, kidney problems, nervous system problems and even lead to increased risk of cancer.

Better remain inconclusive

Technology, needless to say, would play the bigger role in such a context to meet people’s basic needs in a sustained manner. Naturally, protecting fresh water reserves, watershed development, chemical treatments following the safety norms, tackling the arsenic and fluoride contamination, among others, could give rich dividends. It is high time that the gross disparity prevailing on this score requires immediate attention so as to mitigate the incidence. Investment / raising fund allocations on this infrastructure development will benefit all in the long run in as much as it will ensure coverage of all rural habitations to reach the unreached with access to safe drinking water; sustainability of the systems and sources and tackling the water quality problems in affected habitations. It is crystal clear that population growth would put further put strain on per capita availability of water. Efforts to enhance drinking water supply must move at a greater speed so as to cover all of the villages with adequate potable water connection / supply.

True, undeniable fact – we are still at very early stages of awakening. A realistic approach – obviously not by holding seminars and observance of World Water Day alone – can mitigate the incidence. The responsibility lies equally with the government sector as well as private sector – checking the unrestricted exploitation of ground water, encouraging planned urbanization, optimization of use (read Israel), restricting the flow of effluents from industrial units to the rivers and obvious enough stricter supervision and effectively discharging the duties and responsibilities related to corporate social responsibility.

This adequately shows that immediate actions are to be taken to protect the wealth – cutting down the number of people without safe access to water in a time-bound manner. The then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki- moon, rightly observed: “We need to begin thinking about better strategies for managing water – for using it efficiently and sharing it fairly. This means partnerships involving not just governments but civil society groups, individuals and businesses.”

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