"If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource."
~ Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President, 1995
The importance of water for sustaining life is one of the early lessons we learn. Water is required in every sphere of life whether it is the environment, society or economy. Of the total global water resources present on the planet, 97.5% is salt water found in oceans and seas while 2.24% is fresh water that is inaccessible, either found in polar icecaps (mainly in Greenland and Antarctica), glaciers or deep underground water, mostly too deep to be economically available. This leaves a mere 0.26% available for consumption which is accessible through rivers, streams and reservoirs.
Presently, half a billion people live in water-stressed or water-scarce countries, and this number is estimated to increase to three billion by 2025. The region facing severe water scarcity are the Middle East, northern Africa, western United States and large parts of Australia with large parts of India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America also facing widespread water shortages as a result of population pressure and heavy resource exploitation. Recognizing the gravity of diminishing global water resources, in July 2010, the United Nations made access to safe freshwater a universal human right stressing the importance of water as a resource “that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life”. The Millennium Development Goals developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also recognize that one billion people lack access to safe drinking water (Goal 7c). Various factors are contributing to the shrinking of our water resources and they can be divided into supply-side and demand-side pressures. While climate change and environmental degradation are examples of supply-side pressures, demand-side pressures include changes in population growth and distribution and sectoral water demands (industry vs. agriculture vs. domestic).
Growing awareness about the need for sustainable water utilization, increased research interest at a global level and active civil society participation has led to the naming of water as 'blue gold' with scientists predicting an age of water wars in the near future, where scarcity of water will trigger civil unrest and battles over this live giving commodity. How does a supposedly free and plentiful resource like water get associated with war and conflict? For this let us explore the highly politicized water economy and look at the example of Cochibamba in Bolivia, Latin America's poorest country.
It is a woeful commentary on vested interests if a country's government allows its army to open fire on its own civilians to protect the investments of a foreign company. Despite such experiences, water privatization is on the increase with a little more than 10% of global water being in private hands today.
Let us now examine another crucial driver of uncertainty regarding water resources: climate change. With the support of concrete empirical evidence, scientists today are observing and predicting the occurrence of more frequent and severe floods, higher irregularities in precipitation patterns and longer and harsher periods of drought. Such shifts in climatic averages can have grave repercussions on snow fed rivers, wetland ecosystems, agricultural livelihoods, groundwater recharge and plant life, to name a few. The heat wave across Europe in 2003 and 2006 and Pakistan floods in 2010 are recent examples of some such effects. Against the backdrop of this global scenario of water resources, let us now unravel the situation of water resources in India.
"If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country." ~ Nehru, speaking to villagers to be displaced by the Hirakud Dam, 1948
India is one of the most glaring examples of a country plagued with water quality and access issues. The western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are traditionally recognized as water stressed regions but have a rich history and indigenous knowledge bank of water harvesting and management techniques. This repository of local knowledge is now fast eroding in the face of modernization, urban migration and rapid industrialization. Neighbouring agriculture intensive states of Punjab and Haryana saw an exponential increase in food production following the Green Revolution in the 1960s. However, today the region is suffering from acute water quality issues because of pesticide and fertilizer contamination as well as falling water tables due to overexploitation of groundwater resources. Urban centres like New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore are facing acute water access and quality issues due to an ever increasing population, limited resources and poor water recycling mechanisms. Other regions like Bundelkhand in central India and Andhra Pradesh in the south are also swiftly going through their water resources and moving into water scarcity.
As in other parts of the world, water scarcity and sharing has often led to conflict and legal dispute. Let us examine the issue of water sharing of Kaveri, a perennial rain fed river in south India, between the states of Karnataka (upstream) and Tamil Nadu (downstream). The conflict is regarding two controversial agreements (in 1982 and 1926, see timeline) between the Madras Presidency (Tamil Nadu) and the Princely State of Mysore (Karnataka) which the latter claims is skewed in favour of the former.
In 2002, amidst growing concerns of food security for an ever increasing the need to increase food production, the Government of India proposed the ambitious US$ 120 billion National River Linking Project which proposes large scale inter-basin water transfer by linking 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers. The National Water Development Agency foresees that the project is ‘‘one of the most effective ways to increase the irrigation potential for increasing the food grain production, mitigate floods and droughts and reduce regional imbalance” and aims to transfer excess waters from eastern states to the water scarce regions in north and central India. The proposal has been severely criticized by the media, academia and civil society for its potential negative environmental impacts, extremely high costs and disregard for sustainability.
“Filthy water cannot be washed.” ~ West African Proverb
Coming to the capital city of Delhi, growing urbanization, ever increasing numbers of migrants into the city, rapid industrialization and unsustainable development of important watersheds like the Delhi Ridge are some of the factors contributing to the increasing gap between water supply and demand as well as serious issues of poor water quality. Indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater resources is an additional driver of water scarcity in a city infamous for having the nation’s highest per capita water usage of 240 liters per capita per day (the Central Ground Water Board has recorded an average drop of 8m in the last 20 years with some areas seeing a drop of 20-30m!).
The main sources of water in Delhi are surface water from River Yamuna (and Ganga and Bhakra storage), rainfall and groundwater. The Yamuna is one of the city’s main lifelines and plays a critical role in groundwater recharge, water quality enhancement and biodiversity maintenance. Several factors like conversion of fertile floodplains for agriculture, rapid construction and development of areas near the embankments, excessive pollution and poor sewage treatment have led to the deplorable condition of this once healthy river. The agency controlling Delhi’s water and wastewater management is the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), but in 2000, water privatization started making inroads in the capital with the Delhi Government awarding Degremont (a subsidiary of the French water company, Suez) a Rs 2 billion contract with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) towards a water treatment plant. In 2005, following protests led by social activist Arvind Kejriwal, the contract was revoked. Another alarming facet of the water sector in Delhi is the health of its water bodies and wetlands. The 25 km stretch from Wazirabad to Okhla is one of the most threatened riparian habitats.
However, the picture is not entirely grim. By June 2011, the DJB will finalize its Water Master Plan 2021 for Delhi which proposes to use the expertise of the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) to conduct water audits and assessments. Jairam Ramesh, State Minister for Environment and Forests has been increasing political pressure on the governments of Haryana and Delhi to address water contamination in the Yamuna, threatening action against “persistent polluters” if the Haryana government failed to penalize industrial polluters discharging untreated waste into the river upstream. Under the Environment Protection Act, he has also prohibited the use of chemical fertilizers near Yamuna. Civil society action, youth participation and political will together, can perhaps rescue the Yamuna and Delhi’s water scenario from complete deterioration.
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”~ Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
Aided by scientific evidence and public participation, the international dialogue on responsible water management has gained momentum in the past decade. Many water experts still believe that our water resources, if used judiciously, can meet the growing demands from industry, agriculture and households. In context of escalating population pressure, rapid development, shrinking forests and a changing climate, the need to protect and revitalize our water resources has never been more acute. We must recognize that a future with lesser water necessitates conscientious action. We must control the amount of water we use and adopt water saving practices in our daily life. We must question our governments about the policies they implement for water recycling and sewage treatment and participate in initiatives to revitalize our water systems. We must take the time out to learn about the watershed we live in and identify ways to preserve its health. We must promote and practice water harvesting and spread awareness regarding the criticality of the health of our water resources. And most of all, we must remember that individual participation is necessary, for as the saying goes, little drops make an ocean.
 Water scarcity is a situation where there is insufficient water to satisfy normal human water needs for food, feed, drinking and other uses, implying an excess of water demand over available supply.