To mark World Water Day 2019, Water Vartalaap is launching a series of editorials that lay out the water crisis and the remedies pursued by various countries globally. While this (the first) edition introduces the importance of water management and conservation, subsequent editorials will examine various water conservation and supply enhancement techniques.
Rethinking Water Conservation-1
Ever Increasing Water Crisis
While Cape Town’s close encounter with ‘day zero’ (the day when taps run dry) is still fresh in our minds, there is no denying that Earth is heading towards a thirstier future. With fourteen (14) of the world’s twenty (20) megacities now experiencing severe water scarcity or drought conditions, it is estimated that by 2050 about 3.5 billion to 4.4 billion people around the world will live with limited access to water (with over 1 billion of them in cities). Humanity is in a vulnerable position currently and the problem is compounded by climate change, growing population, severe neglect and over exploitation of water.
Key issues – Water Utilization in Different Sectors
The typical home use of water i.e. for washing, cleaning, and cooking represents only about 8% percent of humanity’s total water consumption, agriculture uses the lion’s share of 70% percent, followed by energy production and industry at 22%.
Agriculture is not only world’s largest water user in terms of volume, it is also a relatively low-value, low-efficiency and highly subsidized water user. Amount of water used in agriculture is mainly dependent on rainfall or irrigation in the region. Although irrigation has greatly increased production of food on the planet, somehow, people in many parts of world, especially India, tend to cultivate thirsty crops even in arid areas. Most of the agricultural practices of India are inefficient and lack judicious use of water for crop cultivation. A glaring example of which is that Indian farmers, on an average, use 18,000 litres of water to produce one kg of cotton which is more than twice the global average of 8,000 litres for same level of production. Water problem has worsened in the country due to low public and political awareness of the crisis, weak environmental legislations and misdirected subsidies which also allow indiscriminate (free) use of electricity to farmers to pump ground water for wasteful field applications beyond crop cultivation.
Industry is the second largest user of water, a significant part of which is used for cooling the thermal power plants, within the Industry, food, beverages and pharmaceutical sector are the largest consumers of water. Industries are also the key contaminators of water, contaminating both surface as well as ground water through poorly regulated discharge of the effluents. Over the years, the problem has assumed a larger proportion due to absence of incentives/subsidies to promote effluent water discharge compliance.
Domestic households, though the smallest consumers (of water), have a high potential impact on water availability; several benefits can be derived by reducing water consumption at the household level. Excess consumption by households exert undue pressure on water resources, pumping devices, distribution networks etc. Unfortunately, the domestic users use and waste water indiscriminately since its cost is insignificant compared to other services i.e. power/electricity. In India, the water utilities do not charge the customers the real cost of water treatment, storage and transportation, the water tariffs are highly subsidized leading to near bankruptcy of most of the water utilities in the country. Weak cash flows and low profitability leads to a vicious cycle resulting in poor maintenance and growth of the water infrastructure.
Global Efficient Conservation Practices
Developed nations consume comparatively less water for agriculture and more for industrial and domestic use while the developing countries in Asia and Africa use 80-90% of the water for agriculture and only 5-12% of the water for industrial use. Efficient usage of water for agriculture can save lakhs of litres of water while maintaining same levels of crop productivity. Israel, a geographically water scarce country is a pioneer and an innovator in several agricultural water conservation practices; from drip irrigation, grain cocoons, biological pest control to tailor made farm solutions, Israel has provided the world a replicable model for sustainable Agri-production.
To augment water conservation on the domestic side, Singapore is probably an excellent case study in the world. In Singapore, which is a small island country with limited natural resources like water, the water needs of the country are met through water imports (from Malaysia), desalination and wastewater recycling (called NEWater) which together address about 50% of the water needs of Singapore.
Another exemplary example is Germany where the government has shown the political will to institute high-water tariffs which has forced Germans to conserve and optimize the use of water over time, thereby reducing the per capita consumption of water.
Rethinking Water Conservation
In India, the recent years have seen a host of schemes and regulations by the government to augment ground water recharge, control water contamination, reduce consumption and increase water conservation. While there is no denying that there is an increased awareness amongst the industries and households towards conservation and efficient water use, its translation into citizen action has been limited. Also, as a number of initiatives are being run by the Government, most of these have seen limited success, partly due to lack of urgency and the political will in enforcing such stringent regulations to conserve water.
While policies and enforcement can work at one level to address this problem, Indians need to start looking at more practical solutions which are easily implementable. For now, the country has no choice but to adopt benchmark water conservation practices. If India is serious in addressing its water woes and not push the country to a civil war over water in the next couple of decades, then some of these actions are not desirable but mandatory.
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