French Blog
(Feb. 27, 2003)

Imagine a world without water.

Think about any product and you will find that there is hardly any which does not consume water in the process of its manufacture. We just can’t survive without water. With the galloping demand for water, this life-sustaining element has become scarce. Yet we tend to downplay this reality and not just squander it but abuse it as well. It is a common sight to see a Sintex tank overflowing with water with none to pay heed or a tap left open while bathing, washing or rinsing.

There is every reason for the United Nations Organisation (UNO) to fear that by the year 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will face a shortage of water and the next war could be waged not over oil but water.
To inculcate the understanding of the need for more responsible water use and conservation, the United Nations (UN) has declared 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater.

The Pervading Problem

Water dearth is a global problem. The World Water Council has pointed out that while in 1950 only 12 countries with a total of 20 million people suffered water shortages, this figure would increase to 65 countries with a total of seven billion people by 2050. Today, over two billion people, one third of all humanity, have no access to pure drinking water.

In India, the scenario is dismal indeed. Over 170 million people in the country do not have access to safe water. Only around 217 towns and cities out of 3,119 have any kind of treatment for wastewater in India, according to a Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2020 Vision study. In the year 1955, the annual water availability per capita in India was 5227 cubic metre, it has fallen to 2500 cubic metre now. Drinking water crunch is becoming more and more severe. People have to travel long distances to fetch water for domestic use. Some time back in Mysore, water was being sold to the thirsty populace on rickshaws, bicycles or in road tankers by private suppliers for as much as Rs 5 per bucket. In Rajkot, water is supplied for only 20 minutes a day at a very low pressure. These are only prelude of shape of things to come.

With scarce drinking water, bottled water markets have mushroomed. These private companies sell packaged water at an exorbitant profit. In the process, they often over-exploit the already depleted groundwater aquifiers. According to Cropwatch, in Chennai, more than 200 legal and 400 illegal water packaging units operate in the city and its surroundings. To produce one litre of an aerated drink, these companies use upto 6 to 8 litres of fresh water. If you buy a 1 litre or 500 ml bottle of bottled water, you are paying 250 paise per glass. That one glass of bottled water is equivalent in price to 10,000 glasses of municipal water!! And mind you, this water is also not safe. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study has recently found that most of these branded bottles have deadly pesticide residues including DDT.

Water Use

Water is used mainly in agriculture, in industries and for domestic use. The national resource base for any country is water. It is one of the factors which dictate the country’s prospects of economic progress.

In agriculture, water is underpriced, subsidized or at times provided even free of cost. This results in misallocation and inefficient or wasteful use of water. As against average water charges for irrigation at 3 per cent of production cost in India, China is charging 20 per cent and South Korea 42 per cent. Most Indian states have not revised their irrigation water rates for the last 20 years. The country shells as much as US$ 1.2 billion in water subsidies. Besides, a FAO study found that only about 20 to 35 per cent of water released from the reservoirs actually reaches the crops being irrigated. Experts have estimated that 38 per cent of canal water is wasted on account of seepage and evaporation between dam gates and the field. Moreover crops in India are water-intensive such as rice, wheat and pulses.

The automobile industry, sugar, leather, chemical, paper and consumer appliances, all these consume excessive water during their manufacture. To produce a small car, 4,50,000 litres of water is used, for a tonne of paper 54,000 litres is consumed, for a tonne of synthetic material 1,40,000 litres is used and 53 litres of water goes into the making of a pair of leather shoes. Thus far it would be fine but industries do even more than this. They drain their effluents into the rivers and other water bodies. Each cubic metre of untreated industrial waste renders 50 to 60 cubic metres of river water unusable. When this contaminated water is used for drinking, it becomes a carrier of many deadly diseases such as cholera, jaundice, colitis and so on. Globally, around 20,000 children are killed by water-related diseases every year. Population killed every year because of bad water quality, more than 5 million, is 10 times the number killed in wars.

It is not only pollution which makes things difficult, but in some cities up to 25 per cent of water is wasted because of leakages. Moreover, where sewage networks run alongside water pipes, cross contamination leads to epidemics.

India’s efforts to emulate the standards of international tourism with round-the-clock supply of hot water and massive golf courses, are extravagant. The water needed for the daily upkeep of a six-hectare golf course could quench the thirst of 200 people in a day. The same amount of water which irrigates a hectare of high-yield rice fills the baths of 100 four star hotel guests for 55 days.

Wastage also takes place in the form of thousands of taps left running, leaking pipes unattended to and burst mains on the streets. Everyday millions of gallons of treated water is lost. In India, the rate of Non Revenue Water (NRW) or water lost either through breakage, theft, seepage or other unaccountable ways once it leaves the treatment plant is between 40 per cent and 60 per cent. Not many people bother to report such cases to the relevant authorities. Besides, people store water unnecessarily and when it gets stale, they throw it away to fill fresh water. Illegal connection (water theft) add to the dearth.

When water is polluted and there is shortage, scarcity forces people to take desperate measures which finally lead to depletion of the existing resource. For instance, in cities where underground water is available, people have dug wells and installed handpumps leading to receding groundwater supplies. Excessive pumping in parts of many Indian cities such as Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata has lowered groundwater levels by as much as 60 metres.

So, the real problem is over consumption and abuse of water resource rather than its short supply.

Be Water Wise

The scarcity can be turned into abundance if only we understand the philosophy underlying conservation—
Wastage leads to shortage, the less you use, the more you have.

People have a big role to play in shaping the kind of society we want to live in the future. Water should not be taken for granted. Saving water is easy and should be part of our daily lifestyle. Follow these simple tips to save water:

  • When washing hands, while shaving, taking a bath or brushing your teeth, don’t let the tap open. Turn it off.
  • Never throw away water that could be used for something else.
  • Always water plants during the early morning hours, when temperatures are cooler, to minimize evaporation.
  • Organise and support events aimed at protecting water resources.
  • Push your local decision makers to ensure that you have access to clean and safe drinking water.
  • Keep your community clean, recycle and do not litter. You will actually save water.
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