Deepmala 50 – Access to Water : Crisis Ahead

What will be the challenges that the world will be facing in the year 2050? We need to prepare for them from now onwards. The goals for the year 2050 have been drawn up by a wide ranging consultation by a United Nations institution recently. These goals are 42 in number and they have been organized from top to bottom in terms of the order of importance attached to them. It is interesting to note that the goal that deals with ‘end water shortages and water pollution’ ranks the first. I tried to find out as to why this has been placed at the top. I discovered some shocking facts.

Today, water tables are falling on every continent. Agricultural land is becoming brackish worldwide, and groundwater aquifers are being polluted. Nearly 45 crore people in 29 countries live in water-short locations. More than 100 crore people lack safe drinking water. Nearly half the world lacks adequate sanitation, and 80% of all diseases in the developing world are water-related. Since 70% of freshwater withdrawal is for agriculture, water shortages are forcing urban versus rural prioritisation of usage. Half the world could face water shortages by 2032 if the current trends continue. Sustainable development, poverty, and disease cannot be addressed until the severe problems of water scarcity is solved. Not surprisingly, therefore, water crisis takes the to spot among the 42 priorities.

Someone has also predicated that the twenty first century wars will be fought on water. This also looked surprising at first, but on deeper reflection, the reasons were not hard to see. About 40% of humanity lives in river basins shared by more than two countries; hence the potential for conflict increases with population growth and water demand. Economic development of Sudan and Ethiopia will draw on the river Nile, making water conflicts in this region seem inevitable. Forget about two nations; even in a single nation also there can be a conflict between two states. We, in India, have already witnessed the conflict between Karnataka and Tamilnadu. Water systems are vulnerable to industrial catastrophe, agricultural pollution, and terrorist attract. Business-as-usual will lead to world water crises–causing mass migrations, disease, and wars.

The water situation in India is grim, but it is bad elsewhere too. With 22% of the world’s population, China has to survive on only 7% of the world’s total fresh-water resources. About 40% of Africans do not have access to safe water. In some African cities, such as Nairobi and Lagos, more than 60% of the population has no running water. Water distribution is difficult: one-third of Africa’s fresh water flows through just one river, the Congo. Tribal wars, sanitation, recurrent drought, desert encroachment, and high population growth play havoc with Africa’s water resource.

The water situation can be improved greatly through change of practices and polices as well as by using the new tools of technology. For example, we can make progress by changing agricultural practices to get more crop per drop of water, introducing water pricing, developing plants that are drought-resistant and more brackish-tolerant, investing in watershed management, securing treaties and cooperative agreements on water rights, and creating integrated water management plans. Investing in desalination will help nations. For example, Israel produces water through desalination. Japan converts seawater into drinking water by using the desalination technology.

We must move water as a major policy agenda both nationally and globally. It is understood that the issue is so serious that the United Nations is intending to hold a second World Conference on Water in 2005 to launch the second decade on water and sanitation. The first World Conference held in 1977 set the agenda for 1981-90. This was very successful: 100 crore people gained access to safe water and 70 crore got sanitation. But we should not wait for these movements to start globally. In India itself, we must start a movement ourselves. Water conservation must become an individual responsibility. My own CSIR, during this year, which is its Diamond Jubilee year, has decided to give the highest priority to S&T related to water prospecting, conservation and purification. Other institutions should join in this noble cause too.