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Tapping innovation to secure water future

water future


Dr BK Mukhopadhyay
(The writer, a noted management economist and an international commentator on business and economic affairs, can be reached at m.bibhas@gmail.com)

It is crucial to be water independent. No one should have to rely on someone else for a basic need. It is rightly being observed that time is running out, so is water.

Singapore showing the way
At the very outset let us have a look at Singapore: though it has been facing uncertainty about long-term water imports, and with more irregular rainfall linked to climate change, yet Singapore is now working to supply much of the water it needs at home through a combination of stringent conservation, reuse and innovative technology. Support given by Malaysia also deserves to be appreciated on this score!

If we glance back we could locate that since 2006, the Southeast Asian nation [renowned as one of the region’s wealthiest] has committed almost half a billion dollars to improving water technologies. Side by side it also runs ongoing public awareness campaigns on the need to conserve water – inclusive of urging people not to use a hose to wash the car, not to leave the tap running when washing dishes and not to keep the shower on while soaping up.
The reality reflects…

As per recent UN estimates around 1.2 billion people – around 20 per cent of world population – were living in areas where the limits of sustainable water use had already been reached or breached. It is high time the issue needed to be placed high on the global agenda. In fact the world is urgently required to adapt to the reality. There is still enough water for all of us if and only if we keep it clean and share the same. In fact we face the challenge that we must make safer stores of water available to all.

Actually, for a 21st century company it has been all about the triangle – water, food and climate change. The challenge could only be mitigated if collaborative approaches are taken up backed by political will, market mechanisms and innovative technology. Market forces could work well under a cap-and-trade approach similar to those applied to carbon dioxide. Favouring market forces to play a role in the management of scarce water – defining the value of water – positively aid to take a big leap forward.

It is a global phenomenon – an area where immediate adequate attention is to be paid so that the things do not go from bad to worse. It is essential for survival – more important than anything else – the most crucial factor considered from the point of view of environment protection, poverty alleviation and promotes development inasmuch as now globally more than two and half billion people live in the most abysmal standards of hygiene and sanitation. Wastage of water and absence of regular clean water supply not only to the burgeoning metropolis but to huge rural regions also simultaneously coexists.

Even in Beijing shortages are expected to persist for years to come. The mighty Colorado river, North America, seldom meets the sea. One third of the US and one fifth of Spain still suffer from water stress. Central Africa’s Lake Chad, supporting the very life of 30 million plus people has already shrunk one-tenth of its former size, the negative contributory factors being climate change, drought, mismanagement and over use, among others.

In India, though accessibility to drinking water has increased considerably during the last decade in particular, yet around 10 per cent of the rural and urban population still does not have access to regular safe drinking water and during critical summer, especially the condition goes from bad to worse in many parts of the country. Excessive extraction of ground water to meet agriculture, industrial and domestic demands is steadily harming the rural and urban settlements. The available annual utilizable water in our country (surface plus ground) stands at 1,100 billion cubic metres. Side by side, the grave concern here is the fact that the total cost of environmental damage in India, as per World Bank estimates, amounts to 4.5 per cent of GDP and of this 59 per cent results from the health impact of water pollution!

What is more a cause of anxiety is the fact that the adequate availability of safe drinking water is far from being satisfactory. Though water contains organic and inorganic impurities, the main source of diseases are the organic impurities which enter into the water through the soil from cesspools, through manure, or through sewers emptying their contents into the rivers – from which many cities, in particular get their drinking water supply.
Added to this, the very piping system into the home, unclean water tanks, improper drainage and waste disposal systems, also contribute to impure or contaminated water. Again, presence of excess inorganic matters [iron, lead salts, etc] also nicely paves the way for various ailments and diseases to occur like: constipation, dyspepsia, colic, paralysis, kidney disease and sometimes even death.

Bigger challenges ahead

The responsibility lies equally with the Government sector as well as private sector – checking the unrestricted exploitation of ground water, encouraging planned urbanization, optimization of use [read Israel ], restricting the flow of effluents from industrial units to the rivers and obvious enough stricter supervision and effectively discharging the duties and responsibilities related to corporate social responsibility.

As a whole the system should ultimately work as a part of the solution rather than a problem. The need is to move beyond mere use of water to stewardship – to protect what is steadily becoming an increasingly scarce resource – ultimately benefiting the settlements / communities. It is crystal clear that population growth would further put strain on per capita availability of water. Efforts to enhance drinking water supply must move at a greater speed so as to cover all of the villages with adequate potable water connection / supply.

Technology, needless to say, would play the bigger role in such a context to meet people’s basic needs in a sustained manner. Naturally, protecting fresh water reserves, watershed development, chemical treatments following the safety norms, tackling the arsenic and fluoride contamination, among others, could give rich dividends. It is high time the gross disparity prevailing on this score given immediate attention so as to mitigate the incidence. Investment / raising fund allocations on this infrastructure development will benefit all in the long run in as much as it will ensure coverage of all rural habitations to reach the unreached with access to safe drinking water; sustainability of the systems and sources and tackling the water quality problems in affected habitations.

Immediate actions are to be taken to protect the wealth – cutting down the number of people without safe access to water in a time bound manner. The erstwhile Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, rightly observed: “We need to begin thinking about better strategies for managing water – for using it efficiently and sharing it fairly. This means partnerships involving not just governments but civil society groups, individuals and businesses”.