Water Woes of the World

“Water will be more important than oil this century”. This statement was made by Former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, back in 2003. And it is indeed true.

The water we drink today is the same that dinosaurs drank who lived millions of years before us. There is no new water. It is non-renewable. People, across the world, need to be reminded that water might be in plenty on earth but it is not fit for use. We all read in our primary classes that water forms two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, but we forget that this water is too salty for use.

Water, which sustains all life forms on the earth and environment at large, has become a ‘luxury’ today. The facts speak for themselves. With ever-growing population (7 billion today), about one out of every six human beings does not have daily, immediate access to the most basic of necessities–safe drinking water. Only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is locked up under icecaps and glaciers. The immediate intensity of the crisis can only be felt off and on but the crisis is massive.

According to Blue Planet Network, 48,000 women and children die every 24 hours because of lack of safe drinking water. They have to trek long distances to fetch water for daily use.  Women in Asia and Africa travel some six kilometres each day to get piped water for their daily consumption.

Millions of children are forced to lug pitchers of water over long distances every single day, leaving them little time for studies and other recreational activities. And this is one of the reasons for increasing number of school dropouts in poorer countries.

Poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation is cause for the rising number of cases of water borne diseases, mainly in third world countries. Nearly 2.2 million people in developing countries, most of them children, die every year from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Statistics show that in China, India and Indonesia, twice as many people die from diarrhea as from HIV/AIDS.

In fact, Europe and America are not untouched by the scarcity either. The UN estimates it would cost $30 billion to provide access to safe water to the entire planet. In early 1990s, a trend of privatization of water and sanitation facilities began in Asia, Africa and Latin America following pressure from neo-liberal governments, particularly of Europe and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. The governments across the globe were persuaded that privatization was the key to handle the issue of water access and management. As a consequence, water became a commodity.

But, soon it was realized that privatization has its own set of disadvantages which everyone–public, governments and environment– have to bear like hike in rates, negative economic impacts and harm to natural resources. In fact, France which was one of the first countries to privatize its water resources de-privatized it in 2009. The contracts of two French corporate giants, Suez and Veolia were not renewed after December 31, 2009. Other countries like Mali in West Africa, Uruguay, and cities like Buenos Aires and Santa Fe in Argentina, Cochabamba in Bolivia and Hamilton in Canada followed suit.

With 80 per cent of Asia’s water used for agricultural purposes, the water shortage will have direct implications on food supply. And India is already going through an agricultural disaster which is driving farmers to suicide. Interestingly enough, it is not the agricultural sector whose demand for water is increasing but the industrial sector which is using more and more water-intensive technologies and the urban households.

The Human Development Report 2006, ‘Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and Global Water Crisis’ argues that “it is not the scarcity that has caused the crisis but power, poverty and inequality are at the heart of the problem.”

Whatever be the case, the reality continues to be—1.2 billion people are without access to safe water and 2.6 billion without access to sanitation. Inefficient use, growing population, shrinking water resources, industrialization and pollution—whatever may the reasons be for the scarcity that exists, there is crying need for an urgent solution. Efficient use of water resources, use of better irrigation methods like drip irrigation, less water intensive technology in industries, and better disposal of industrial waste may actually help fight the crisis.

Anumeha Saxena