Beginning a series of articles, D. Narasimha Reddy explains why the most critical environmental issue of the 21st century is likely to be Water.
June 2002: Human survival since ages has depended on the relationship societies had with land and water resources. This relationship has been evolving even since riverbanks and river valleys influenced the early human settlements. Many early civilizations have flourished on the riverbanks, and perished in the river floods - some probably due to the faulty watershed/river basin management. However, eventually human beings had come to understand the cyclical relationship of water with land. This understanding led to the creation of tanks using highly developed engineering techniques. The time span for such development can only be guessed; might have happened over centuries. But, this knowledge has enabled us to live and settle at places of our choosing, not necessarily on the riverbanks or in the valleys. While floods still cause havoc in many parts of the world, they have ceased to be the scourge of civilizations. Fresh water is one of the most important substances for sustaining human life. Considered as one the important one in the five elements - earth, fire, air, space and water - it was revered and worshiped and treated by all with respect. This is because a mere 1 percent of all water on the planet is readily accessible for use. Of this amount about 73 percent goes to agriculture, 20 percent to industry and the rest is used for domestic and recreational needs such as drinking and other non-potable uses. But in the past two decades, the modern development and mismanagement of water resources has resulted in huge water shortages. For untold millions shortage of water means epidemics, hunger, despair and death. Water crisis has its impact not only on people but also on the environment and other living things. Fish, birds and countless living creatures are crowded out, marooned or poisoned as industry and agriculture re-route rivers, dry up wetlands, dump waste and otherwise disrupt natural ecosystems. Although water is a renewable resource, supplies are limited and finite. Only 3 percent of Earth's water supply is fresh water. Total usable supply of fresh water is over 4 million cubic kilometers. Ground water makes up over 95 percent of Earth's usable fresh water supplies. About 90 percent of the world's population gets its water supplies from river basins. Two or more countries share more than 200 rivers, and more than 40 percent of the worlds' population relies on water originating in a country other than their own. Despite its availability, water is not evenly distributed or used around the world. More than 1.2 billion people do not have access to adequate and safe water supplies. The average efficiency of irrigation systems is less than 40 percent. More than 60 percent of the water delivered never reaches the plant, or more than twice as much is delivered than is necessary. Water is a critical element in sustaining ecosystems and bio-diversity. Wetlands (lakes, ponds, etc.) sustain one third of all endangered and threatened species. Over 50 percent of the world's wetlands have been lost or degraded through dams and canal projects, agricultural development, urbanization, and contamination. Of the 8.5 million sq. Kms. of wetlands worldwide, only two percent are protected under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitats (The Ramsar Convention). Water has been and will play an important role in the development of a country or nation or a region. There are predictions that future wars will be fought on water issues, stemming out of the social conflicts over sharing of scarce water sources. It is said that 21st century will decide the powerful nations on the basis of availability of water to a particular nation. Already different States in India have been at loggerheads over the sharing of river waters necessitating the formation of five water tribunals. Internationally, many countries, India included, have simmering conflicts with their neighbouring countries over sharing of water. Water resource development and management is a fundamental requirement in the developmental process. It influences economic development, employment, agriculture, housing, health and numerous other sectors. Everywhere development of water resources takes place in a context of limited funds, competing priorities, human resources and other institutional limitations, and social and political systems that both shape it and determine its eventual success. Both fiscal and human/institutional resources are in short supply in India. One of the most important sectors for development has been the provision of potable water supplies, sanitation, transportation, irrigation and power. Improvements in these areas are essential to food security and to promoting health for the general population. Major water supply and sanitation facilities, especially those serving urban areas and economic centers, form part of the national infrastructure like roads and electricity. In rural areas improving water supplies is intrinsic to community development. Concentration of population, for example, can far outstrip facilities development that even after many years of investment, the absolute number of people unserved may be about the same. This is particularly seen in mega cities and huge urban agglomerations. What is to be done? How can we balance the many conflicting interests involved in water allocation? How can we protect the environment? How can we prevent waste and encourage behavior that supports sustainable use of our water resources? How can we provide an equitable distribution system? These are some of the questions that make water one of the hottest environmental issues today. Coming up:
June 2002 D. Narasimha Reddy is Executive Director of Centre for Resource Education, 201, Maheshwari Complex, Masab Tank, Hyderabad 500 028 India. He is also on the Board of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements