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Water woes: Climate change, rapid modernisation threaten 'elixir of life'

If unaddressed, it may lead to an unsustainable future as the global population increases to nearly nine billion by 2050

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 5 Mar 2022, 10:43 PM

It is aptly called the ‘elixir of life’, sustaining life in various forms, with societies, cities and civilisations evolving along river basins. But rapid modernisation, climate change and a growing population pose serious challenges over the future availability of water in the right quality and quantity.

Did you know that it takes between 3,182 and 9,092 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt and a pair of jeans, the equivalent of one person drinking eight cups of water per day for 10 years? Or that you daily use far more water than you are aware of: much water is used to produce the things we consume, such as vegetables, bread, beef, shampoo, milk, fruit, or grain?

There is a contradiction at play in everyday life at the global level. It’s a daily reminder of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous words in his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner published in 1798: Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.

The fact is that over 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, yet you see frequent reports and images of acute scarcity in various parts of the world — and increasingly, of conflicts, whose roots lie in control and access to water resources. For a large section of urban dwellers across the globe, water is easily available to the point of taking it for granted, but it is not so easy for most people. The climate is changing, and droughts are becoming more frequent, while societies expect a continuous supply of safe, clean drinking water. Farmers need water to irrigate crops and for the wellbeing of their livestock. Experts say action is needed now to secure a healthy environment for current and future generations. The lack of clean or safe water is a global problem, which, if unaddressed, will lead to an unsustainable future as the global population increases to nearly nine billion by 2050.

For example, Britain is an island surrounded by water and has several rivers flowing through but faces many challenges of quality and quantity.

Jean Spencer, an expert on water, says: “We’ve grown used to a constant supply of water to the point where it is difficult to contemplate what it’d be like if it wasn’t available. Yet, maintaining reliable water supplies needs careful management and planning and ours face significant pressures over the coming years.”

A looming crisis

Many studies say hundreds of millions of people across the globe are without access to safe drinking water (only 3 per cent of earth’s water is freshwater), and experts have long sounded warnings about the looming crisis, some even raising the prospect of ‘water wars’.

Nobel laureate CV Raman called water the ‘elixir of life’, and for renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, it “is the driving force of all nature”, but water’s condition today is anything but healthy. The problems include overuse, pollution, issues over allocation, and lack of preservation and replenishment methods.

As US Vice-President Kamala Harris put it during a visit to Oakland, California, “For years, there were wars fought over oil; in a short time, there will be wars fought over water. We must address inequities in access to clean water, at local state federal levels. Understanding opportunities to build back up infrastructure around water.”

Her remarks revived debate over an issue that has many dimensions — individual, local, regional, national, global, and across sectors in economies — but rarely tops the public agenda, until a crisis point is reached. Water scarcity is estimated to affect roughly 40 per cent of the world’s population and, according to predictions by the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank, drought could displace up to 700 million people by 2030.

Water more important than fuel?

There is a growing belief among experts that since water comprises nearly 60 per cent of the human body, and is used extensively for domestic, agricultural, maritime-trade and industrial purposes, it may be more important than fuel in future. Figures show that agriculture is responsible for approximately 70 per cent of the global water demand, with industry and domestic demand at 20 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively.

In domestic usage, drinking and cooking contribute 10 per cent of our daily water usage, with bath taking the lion’s share (at an average of 55 litres per day). The water crisis is part of the wider challenge of climate change, with new studies pointing to significant changes in recent years in ocean health, melting of ice blocks, increasing flooding, deforestation and how water extraction by nations is adversely impacting the situation. This, in turn, adds more urgency to the development of wastewater treatment practices alongside industrial and agricultural expansion.

Access to water and sanitation is recognised as a human right by the UN, since lack of access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has a devastating effect on the health, dignity, and prosperity of billions of people, and has significant consequences for the realisation of other human rights. It is one of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but more effort is needed, as SDGs’ latest report says: “Water is essential not only to health, but also to poverty reduction, food security, peace and human rights, ecosystems, and education. Nevertheless, countries face growing challenges linked to water scarcity, water pollution, degraded water-related ecosystems, and cooperation over transboundary water basins. In addition, funding gaps and weak government systems hold many countries back from making needed advancements. Unless current rates of progress increase substantially, Goal 6 targets will not be met by 2030.”

Theatres of conflict

Conflict over water has long been a feature within and between various nations.

Latest research suggests that water-related violence has been increasing over time, as population growth and economic development drive increasing water demand worldwide. Meanwhile, climate change is decreasing water supply and/or making rainfall increasingly erratic in many places. One of the theatres with potential for water-related conflict is northeast India that adjoins China.

Says Sanjoy Hazarika, author, and expert on northeast India, “For millennia, the Brahmaputra River in its many forms and under many names —Tsangpo, Siang, Lohit, Yamuna, and Padma — in different geographies and nations has swept across the Tibetan plateau into northeast India and Bangladesh before pouring into the Bay of Bengal.  But this is a different time, a different age — as climate change and global warming swamp the world and human interventions seek to capture the energy of rivers and harness their power for the benefit of their populations. In the past 100 years or less, more than 400 large and massive hydro power projects have come up across the Himalayan ranges — on the India, Nepal, and Bhutan sides as well as on the Chinese side, including the sprawling Tibetan plateau. The effort is to build great dams to generate power and ‘control’ the rivers, their ebb and flow, to store their captured waters. It is revered as water security, even national security.  But in our haste, we have unleashed unimaginable harm on the fragile ecosystems, forests, wildlife — and the rivers and streams which are at its heart. They are the true long-term assets for they wash and nourish our nations. Such damaged assets harm long-term national interests apart from contributing to the very problems that are wounding the Himalaya and the world — climate change.”

In fact, the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers are among global hotspots identified by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, where ‘hydro-political issues’ are likely to flare up soon. It says that the effects of climate change will be combined with an ever-increasing number of people to trigger intense competition for scarce resources, which could lead to regional instability and social unrest. The hotspots are areas with issues of accessing fresh water and where a ‘transboundary’ to water exists, which means the people across borders in the areas share a body of water, like a lake or a river. The five most vulnerable hotspots highlighted by the study are the Nile, Ganges/Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris/Euphrates, and Colorado rivers. The growing number of current and potential water conflicts has led to the development of a Water, Peace, and Security early warning tool, funded by the Dutch government with researchers from six organisations, who help predict potential water conflicts as violence associated with water surges globally.

An island’s water crisis

As Britain recovered slowly from the impact of three storms in February — Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin — the issue of water-focused minds on the state of water management and measures needed to ensure clean and plentiful water for future generations. According to James Bevan, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Environment Agency, United Kingdom (UK), the water crisis is a ticking time bomb, and water’s quantity and quality are the “single biggest X factor for the state of nature”. Water and other companies have often faced heavy fines for releasing waste and other chemicals in rivers. In a frank speech to the World Water Tech Innovation Summit, the former diplomat set out the good and not-so-good news about water in Britain, concluding that the truth is more complicated and less convenient than it might be hoped, one that does not fit into 280 characters on Twitter. Over the long term, he says, the biggest determinant of the state of waters in Britain will not be what the Environment Agency or the government or the water companies do, but what happens to our climate.

If we want to fix water, he says, we need to fix the climate, because climate change is driving heavier and more violent rainfall: that rainfall is overwhelming sewage systems more frequently, leading to more discharges into rivers; and it is washing more soil and contaminants into those rivers, causing greater flood risk and pollution. Climate change is also driving hotter temperatures and lower summer rainfall, causing higher drought risk, damaging water quality, and killing river wildlife.

Currently, only 14 per cent of the rivers in Britain meet the criteria for good ecological status, and that number has stayed stubbornly the same for the last several years, but Bevan also outlined some positives: now there are far fewer serious pollution incidents damaging waters than three decades ago; sewage treatment works are now discharging much lower amounts of harmful chemicals into rivers; the bathing waters around coasts are in much better condition; and as waters have improved, nature has recovered, and biodiversity in many of rivers is a lot better than it was.

He says: “The state of our waters is complicated: in the last 30 years we have seen some great improvements but there is still a lot to do and new threats to meet. We should pay as much attention to water quantity — ensuring we have enough — as we do to water quality. Clean and plentiful water is everyone’s responsibility, not just mine or the water companies. Water is more precious than we think. Much of the damage being done to it is coming from farming, not just from water companies spilling sewage, so we need to focus as hard on harm-free farming as we are on good water company performance. Ultimately, we will get the water we are all prepared to pay for. And we cannot have the water we want unless we also tackle the climate emergency and think, and act, differently. But we shouldn’t be downhearted. Because we are already doing many of these things and seeing results.”

However, there is a silver lining: Data shows that 99 per cent of bathing waters in England have passed water quality standards following recent testing at over 400 designated sites, reflecting the highest percentage since new standards were introduced in 2015. Bathing waters are monitored for sources of pollution known to be a risk to bathers’ health, each sample is tested for bacteria, specifically E-coli and intestinal enterococci. In the early 1990s, only 28 per cent of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time.

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