Water: The 21st Century’s Most Valuable Resource?

I attended the annual Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference this year held in Madison, Wisconsin from October 7-11. While working as a Knight Center staff last year, I also had the opportunity to attend the 2008 SEJ Annual Conference, hosted by Virginia Tech. in Roanoke, Virginia from October 15-19.

Comparing the two conferences, while some issues were quite specific (like the Mini Tour that I was on – Biofuels, Ants and Virent Energy Systems specially the part where researchers in University of Madison are trying to discover ways to improve biofuel production by harnessing the cellulose-breakdown capabilities of communities of leaf-cutting ants that feed and groom fungus. Cool, huh?!!), there were some issues and topics that were familiar (and age-old!) like global water conditions.

In the afternoon of October 10, 2009, Peter Annin moderated the lunch and plenary session on ‘Water: The 21st Century’s Most Valuable Resource?’, while Maude Barlow, Mary Ann Dickinson, and Bob Hidell spoke on the topic.

The brief description of the plenary session read:

More than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water today. Two million die annually from unhealthy water conditions. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the global population will suffer at least intermittent water shortages by the year 2025. Oil may have been the defining natural resource of the 20th Century, but we are in a new century now, and many consider it to be the Century of Water. So here in the water-rich Great Lakes region, home to one-fifth of all the fresh surface water on Earth, SEJ is pulling together some of the greatest water minds around to put these issues into a broader context and help us better understand the water challenges that lie ahead.

Unsafe drinking water
Unsafe "drinking" water

A child stands in the entrance to his home after a trip to collect unsafe water. Over 35.5 million people in Bangladesh live without access to clean water. (Credits : WaterAid/Brent Stirton)

After the moderator gave a quick background on current global water conditions, one of the speakers started explaining prevailing water conditions in developing countries like India. She touched upon an alarming trend. The poor countries are buying water-abundant land in poorer countries, implying that the former is robbing the latter of its wealth.

Water is wealth. It is a commodity. So then, does that make water-abundant countries wealthy? Perhaps. But for how long? Water is also a finite resource.

The American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Journal of Climate published a study recently stating that in the past five decades there has been a significant decline in water levels in some of world’s most important rivers. The decline has not only been attributed to climate change and resultant melting of glaciers but majorly as an impact of human population growth leading to greater dam building and water diversion for agriculture.

Aral sea  – a silent testimony to how humans pit themselves against the natural environment

What is the total world water level? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is approximately 326 million cubic miles of water worldwide. That is, roughly 72 percent of Earth consists of water, of which over 96 percent is saline. Nearly 70 percent of freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30 percent of freshwater is in the ground. Surface-water sources, such as rivers, only constitute about 300 cubic miles (about 1/10,000th of one percent of total water). Less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater is readily accessible. And, one-third of the world’s population lives in “water-stressed” countries.

Currently 1.2 billion citizens of the planet lack access to safe water for drinking, cooking and bathing. By 2025, the United Nations estimates this number could swell to more than five billion unless we change the rules by which water is distributed. The unquenched thirst of corporations for water is one of the reasons for the water crisis. Agriculture, much of it fueled by profit-driven, industrialized food systems around the world, uses about 70% of the world’s available water. Industry uses another 20%, leaving just 10% for people and their communities. As corporations have claimed a growing share of water in recent decades, the water remaining available to people has rapidly diminished.

projected water scarcity
A World divided?
Children drinking water_Bjoern Gutenstam
Quenching thirst

Why do we need water to survive? A significant fraction of the human body (about 65 percent) is water. Without water intake a person can survive only eight to ten days. It takes an average of eight to ten cups to replenish the water our bodies lose each day.

Some quick facts from World Health Organization (WHO):
• Water scarcity affects one in three people on every continent of the globe. The situation is getting worse as needs for water rise along with population growth, urbanization and increases in household and industrial uses.
• Almost one fifth of the world’s population (about 1.2 billion people) live in areas where the water is physically scarce. One quarter of the global population also live in developing countries that face water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure to fetch water from rivers and aquifers.
• Poor water quality can increase the risk of such diarrhoeal diseases as cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery, and other water-borne infections. Water scarcity can lead to diseases such as trachoma (an eye infection that can lead to blindness), plague and typhus.
• Water scarcity encourages people to store water in their homes. This can increase the risk of household water contamination and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes – which are carriers of dengue fever, malaria and other diseases.
• Water scarcity underscores the need for better water management. Good water management also reduces breeding sites for such insects as mosquitoes that can transmit diseases and prevents the spread of water-borne infections such as schistosomiasis, a severe illness.
• A lack of water has driven up the use of wastewater for agricultural production in poor urban and rural communities. More than 10% of people worldwide consume foods irrigated by wastewater that can contain chemicals or disease-causing organisms.

Water is crucial for survival, to say the least. The abundance of water offers benefits in many ways; to the economy, ecology, and most importantly, to health.

It is little surprise then that a country like India where water shortage (mostly in Northern India) is a perpetual crisis; its government is looking for outside sources to source water. But is buying land in poorer African countries the best solution to solving its water woes? What are some other solutions that can help tackle this throbbing problem?

Don’t let the rain drain

Even though the number of days New Delhi receives rainfall during the monsoon season (July-August) is only 20-30, the city receives 611 millimeters of rainfall on an average annually. A rainy day is specified as a day with more than or equal to 2.5 mm of rainfall. An analysis done based on the rainfall availability and demand supply gap shows that even 50 percent of the rainwater harvested could help in bridging the demand supply gap.

That’s just New Delhi. India typically receives an average annual rainfall of above 2,000 mm (79 in). Imagine the possibilities if the government makes it mandatory for each state to harvest rainwater? And that’s just one solution to mitigating the city’s, and perhaps even India’s water woes.

A few years ago, a New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta took a look into Northern India’s water woes (titled – In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge), complete with videos and photographs.

water fight
Water fiasco

Residents of a slum in New Delhi (India) wrestle over a hose to fill their buckets from a government water tanker. (Credits: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

If water is crucial for survival then each day is a struggle for survival in most parts of Northern, Western, and Central India. Women travel from far-flung places carrying pots and buckets to fill up this source of survival from wells that are also taking their last breath. The video below made by Explore, a philanthropic multimedia organization depicts the constant struggle for water that women in rural India go through.

Traveling from far and wide to the WELLness of being?

Wells and major water bodies are drying up gradually. Some dub central Asia’s Aral sea as one of earth’s worst natural disasters. The operative words in the last sentence are – “one” and “natural”. It is dreadful to think that the Aral sea is “one” of the “natural” disasters, and that probably there are many more in the offing. What is dubbed “natural” disaster was in fact human-induced.

Much of India’s water woes is also human-induced, aggravated by gross water mismanagement and misuse. There are some cost-effective measures that the India government can adopt to ensure that its people have access to clean and sufficient water.

It is but ironical that when, on one hand, clogged drainages in Mumbai leaves the city submerged in rainwater during monsoons, on the other, the capital and other water-starved cities practically turn into a battleground during peak summer season. India should realize that the solution lies in its own country, and that buying land in other poorer countries or following the footsteps of the water-abundant nations in wasteful water practices are short-lived as long as water is a limited resource. We can use water indiscriminately the day it becomes an infinite resource. But till the time it is limited, let’s use water judiciously. Let’s conserve.


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