Water Water Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink

World Water Day special
- 22 March 2009 -

Water Water Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink

Water constitutes about three fourths of the earth’s surface, but only less than one percent of it can be used by its inhabitants. Most of it is salt water oceans (about 97%) and 2% of it is contained in glaciers. With every country seeking to satisfy its ever increasing water needs from shrinking and limited water resources, there could be a future of conflict. As the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon remarked recently that water scarcity is the potential fuel for wars and conflict. But cooperation, not conflict should guide us in our quest for a solution to this crisis.

In 1992, the UN General Assembly designated March 22, as the World Water Day (WWD) to draw international attention to the critical lack of clean, safe drinking water worldwide. The theme for this year’s WWD is ‘Shared Water—Shared Opportunity’, with the focus on transboundary water management and sharing. There are about 263 transboundary lakes and river basins, which include territories of 145 countries and cover nearly half of the earth’s land surface.

Despite an apparent abundance of clean water in most of the developed nations, more than 1 billion people around the world lack clean safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation services. One third of the earth’s population lives in ‘water stressed’ countries. The crisis is worst in sub Saharan Africa and South Asia .

Lack of clean drinking water and basic sanitation is a big obstacle to progress and development. The worst sufferers are women and children who have to trudge long distances to retrieve meager amounts of water for domestic use. This prevents them from pursuing an education and earning more or doing any thing more productive. The quest for water can drive one mad..

India faces a rapidly worsening water crisis in urban and rural areas. A soaring population, a speedy sprawl of cities, a vast and thirsty farm belt and indiscriminate use of water has left water, in our country, too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in useless surfeit for others who are flooded every year. . The result is there for all of us to see and ponder. More than 700 million Indians do not have adequate sanitation, let alone safe drinking water. According to a UN report, about 2.1 million children die every year, largely for lack of clean water.

Changing life styles and dietary habits, private control over water resources and climate changes (resulting in floods and droughts) are all worsening the water crisis and wreaking an economic and ecological havoc on our blue planet. Poor countries, like India , are at a greater risk as water scarcity threatens the health and livelihood of their populace.

Ground water depletion is a major environmental concern in our country and calls for an immediate and effective agenda in ground water management. Coca cola bottling plants are contributing largely to this in regions where they are situated. Over use of pesticides/chemicals has added to ground water pollution in rural areas. People in some regions of India are compelled to drink water polluted with an excess of fluoride leading to dental fluorosis and arthritis. Water borne diseases are still a bane of our society.

To get a bucket of drinking water is a struggle for many rural women. The cost of fetching water in India is almost equivalent to 150 million women days each year, which amounts to 10 billion rupees. In Rajasthan, the desert state of India , a rural woman walks, on an average, 14,000 km. a year just to fetch water. Their urban sisters are slightly better off, standing in long queues for hours together, to collect water from public taps or lorries. There is a grim rural saying in one water starved region of India which translates into—‘Let the husband die, but the earthen pot of water should not be broken.’

Even in metropolitan cities like Delhi , Chennai, Bangalore , Hyderabad , intense water rationing takes place and the residents are relying more and more on private water tankers to meet their daily requirement of this very precious commodity.

It is ironic that even as India is touted as a global power to reckon with, the Indian government has failed to deliver the most basic of all needs to its citizens. In fact water should not be a demand or a need, but a basic human right, just like clean breathing air. Yet, it has become a commercial product, like oil, thanks to a lack of political will and citizens’ apathy.

The need of the hour is rain water harvesting, judicious use of water for domestic use and, above all, the political will to tackle the problem.. I remember that in my childhood, the domestic taps rarely went dry and none of us ever used private water purifying systems at home. Now the scenario is reversed. The taps seem to be there just for decorative purposes, unless there is a booster pump (which is usually connected to the main supply and still works at specific hours). The water thus obtained is not fit for human consumption till it is boiled, filtered or chemically purified. So basically the supply of clean, potable water is a business which is in private hands. This will have to go. . Public- private partnership will have to be replaced by public- public (government) partnerships. In Thailand , I was appalled to see the concept of just buying bottled water for drinking purposes. In India , too, the trend is catching on, but most of the urban households still resort to purifying water obtained from taps/ private tankers.

Of course, we are as much to blame as the government. Our daily domestic requirement of this scarce commodity has increased by leaps and bounds over the years. Clothes/dish washer machines, flush toilet systems, shower baths, water hose watering of house plants and car washes are just some of the areas which use water insensitively. In the city of Delhi alone 4.5 crore litres of potable water is used every day to wash its 30 lakh odd cars. The city also boasts of 300,000 private tube wells.

What can we do at our level to reduce this global water crisis? Well for starts, let us solemnly resolve not to waste water and, if possible, limit its use. Children, as well as adults will have to realize the impact of water shortage. Only if we would:

1. Not use the toilet as an ash tray or a waste basket to flush avoidable trash. Every time we use the flush, we actually use about 12 litres of water.

2. Turn off the tap while brushing our teeth in the morning and at night. This will save about 20 litres of water everyday.

3. Fix up leaking taps as one drip per seconds amounts to wasting 30 litres of water per day.

4. Wash our cars and bikes with a bucket of water and sponge, instead of a hose which wastes around 15 litres of water per minute if left running.

5. Use the shower in the bathroom judiciously. A 4 minute shower uses more than 60 litres of water.

6. Use clothes/dish washer for full loads for optimum utilization.

All this will go a long way in contributing our mite towards solving this global problem. And we really do not have to go out of our way to do any of these things.

Let the governments and international bodies seek solutions at a more global platform. As for us, just let us, be a bit more sensitive and sensible, so that water does not blush and turn into wine.

Shobha Shukla

The author writes extensively in English and Hindi media. She serves as Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS).

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