Water Woes: On the Edge of Scarcity and Rescue Efforts

“Last chance to evacuate planet earth before it gets recycled”: Porcupine Tree. The song articulates paucity of resources. The threatening undertone of the sentence is unsettling, but isn’t it about time? ‘Water water everywhere not a drop to drink’. The line could have been expelled by a distressed sailor stranded in the midst of deep, endless blue. The paradox is striking. Water, for long, has been always a scarce necessity.

According to the Grail Research report published on the 23rd of March, 2009, India would end up facing a water scarcity issue unless sustainable water management initiatives were to be implemented. Surprisingly, we do not have as much freshwater as we’d like to have. Freshwater constitutes only 2.5% of the total water on the planet. You’d think it is all matter. Matter cannot be destroyed. It has to resurface, in one form or the other. It’s just that we do not have much to work with in the first place. Out of the total global reserves which amount to 1400 million litres, freshwater makes up for only 35 million litres. Furthermore, 30.5% of the freshwater reserves are easily accessible, which is not even 1% of the total water on the planet. We lose 92% of precipitation to evaporation and runoff. What peters down from that, as a result, is a precious little quantity.

It has been anticipated that the volume of water consumption is destined to increase for developing economies such as us, because of obvious factors such as increasing population, urbanization, deforestation, etc. On the other hand, developed countries and other high income nations would end up reducing overall water usage by 2050, thanks to better water management measures. The decline has been steady, yet persistent. In 1975, only a few regions such as North Africa, the Middle East and Europe faced water shortage. By 2000, it had enveloped almost all of Asia. The problem will continue pulverizing particularly India and China and by 2025, it would have reached a crescendo. It is pretty obvious that population explosion is the single most determining factor acting as a catalyst to further aggravate the problem, the link is irrefutable. Our population is expected to go up to 1.66 billion people by 2050. The additional people will feed off the already limited resources, rapid industrialization is imperative and agricultural production is deemed to step up in order to satiate the ever-growing population. Major rivers such as the Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Satluj have been utilized as primary sources of ground water, which will be depleted by 50 to 75 percent. Most of it is used to drive agriculture and industries. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that thermal power plants and steel plants are the biggest culprits when it comes to industrial wastewater discharge. As a part of the initiatives programme, major steel, automotive, medical companies have invested sizeable amounts in an effort to redeem themselves for the damage that they have caused to water reserves. It is a form of quiet, corporate penance. Despite this, the problem hasn’t ceased to escalate.

Apart from that, domestic water consumption is slated to increase from the current 5% to 11% by 2050. Major cities are the hardest hit, because of concentration of population. Untreated sewer pollutes fresh water, effectively negating potential water resources.

The lack of a centralized body means that the crusade against water scarcity lacks direction. A smattering of local organizations and the government, along with dedicated bodies like Central Water Commission and the Central Pollution Control Board ensure that there is not much method in all the madness. They lack internal coordination. The legislation is rather weak and there are no strict regulations on who can pump groundwater. Private organizations shy away from diving into water resources management and regulation because it is a public sector domain. The ones that have braved it have to bear the brunt of sanctions.
There are a host of water management techniques that we can rely on in order to achieve judicious utilization. Rainwater harvesting, desalination, watershed management are some proven techniques which could aid the process in the longer run. Businesses have chalked out intricate action plans to achieve that. We could use the Chinese water management model as an ideal and try to emulate it. They have implemented novel techniques such as inter-river basin linkage, community based rainwater harvesting, water treatment technologies. The US has gone a step further and resorted to pre-treatment programs for wastes and sewer, subsidized micro-irrigation, mandatory rainwater harvesting, community-based water management. We could take cues from these. A fine example of a locally developed technique which has been implemented successfully would be ‘The Deep Pond System’ in Hyderabad which treats 37,854 litres of water everyday according to the case study conducted by the Indian water portal. There have been instances where the common man has made a massive difference by using innovative irrigation techniques. A glowing tribute to the efforts can be seen in the form of ‘Varsha, the rain gun’, a micro irrigation technique that helps conserve irrigation water up to 50%. It was developed by Anna Saheb, a sugarcane farmer from Karnataka and it is now produced on a mass level and marketed. He is one of the few unlikely heroes who just happened to think out of the box. Such initiatives at the grassroots level can make a sizeable difference to the bigger picture.

By 2025, almost 3 billion people would be under the water stress threshold. If the cold statistics don’t scare you, nothing will. It’s not quite the last chance, but starting early and getting a head start doesn’t hurt. Every time I step inside the shower, relishing the idea of a long, hot session, I would probably give it a second thought and opt for a quick, 4 minute power shower instead. It doesn’t make me a pig and I could take some heart from the belief that I have done my own little bit. I might twist the tap knob carefully to plug leaks, minimize using my washing machine and the dishwasher in an effort to ensure that we end up saving for a rainy day! Because we can.

Bhushan Sawant

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/1396028598/]