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Water, petrol of the 21st century

April 06, 2005

Although it is not a hot political issue in India yet, water security has major implications for economic growth and public health. Together with transportation and electricity, it constitutes one of the three weakest components of Indian infrastructure. With increasing industrialisation and the cities becoming larger, water shortages in India -- as in the rest of the world -- will worsen.

Water consumption is rising much faster than the rate of population growth. This is expected to accelerate as people switch to Western-style lifestyles and diets -- one kilogram of meat needs more than five times as much of water as a kilo of cereals.

Water pollution is increasing and the amount of useable water is declining. Groundwater levels are also dropping rapidly. More than a million people in India die from waterborne diseases each year.

A third of the world's population lives in countries with serious water scarcity. In another 20 years, two-third of the world's population would be in this situation. Water may be the petroleum of the 21st century. Some have suggested that wars will be fought over it.

'From a resource point of view, the biggest difficulty undoubtedly lies in water'

The bottled water industry has taken off in India because most of piped pressurised water is also contaminated. There is increasing acceptance that it is a commodity and not a fundamental human right. On the other hand, if politicians were asked about it, they would say that it is the responsibility of the government to provide safe drinking water.

If access to basic water requirements is a human right implicitly supported by law, then why aren't local and central governments in India working to ensure safety of all drinking water? Enormous human and economic costs stem from waterborne diarrhoea diseases. There is lost productivity and health costs.

Clean water initiatives contributed to the development of the West. In the US, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 that imposed stiff controls on municipal and industrial waste and underwrote waste treatment along rivers and bordering lakes.

But there is a strong lobby for privatisation of water. Critics of this policy note that international water companies form part of the World Water Council (WWC), which advocates 'handling water as merchandise, whose just price can only be set by the market.'

The increase of water price for reduction of demand forces the poor to pay more for it, just for survival. On the other hand, where water is free as in many places in India, there is enormous wastage. Water taps are not closed, and water keeps on running until the municipal pumps have shut down or the overhead tanks have run dry.

But, treating water as a commodity has led to disastrous results. In September 1999, to comply with the 'structural reforms' accompanying an IMF loan, the Bolivian government gave Cochabamba's municipal water system to Aguas del Tunari, a multinational consortium of private investors.

Within weeks of the transfer of ownership, water prices rose to pay for the improvement of the city's water system. Bills doubled or tripled, and for some it amounted to a quarter of their monthly income. In response, protesters shut down the city. As rioting spread to other cities, the Bolivian government rescinded the water contract and turned over control of city's water to a cooperative.

Water privatisation has failed in other places as well. Vivendi, the French multinational company, had its thirty-year water contract with the Argentine province of Tucumán cancelled after two years because of alleged poor performance. Similar cancellations took place in Peru and Brazil because of popular opposition.

Although privatisation of the entire water resource for the community -- including that for bathing, washing and drinking -- has not been successful, people seem to be quite willing to pay high prices for safe drinking water.

Water projects in poor countries commonly deliver safe pressurised drinking water to just the prosperous sections of the cities. Most governments are unwilling to extend safe water and sanitation services to slums for fear of legitimising them. In these communities, people are forced to use the channels between homes to relieve themselves, which leads to contamination of both ground and surface water.

In the industrialised world, the common sequence of treatment processes for water collected from protected sources includes self-purification from sunlight, filtration through sand, and chlorination. These techniques are not feasible in poorer communities. Boiling water for disinfection for drinking requires substantial quantities of fuel, and chlorination is too expensive.

Ashok Gadgil of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has invented a new method for disinfecting water without polluting the environment. His invention uses ultraviolet light, powered by only 40 watts of electricity. This invention has received international acclaim and it deserves to be more widely known in India.

Gadgil's system can disinfect four gallons of water a minute for only two rupees per ton. Compact in size and weighing only seven kilograms, this system has no moving parts. It requires little maintenance -- just cleaning the water pan every few months and changing the UV lamp once a year. It uses less electricity than a table lamp and can be powered by a bicycle generator, wind, or even solar cells.

This technology been licensed to a US start-up company, WaterHealth International, which is now working with Naandi Foundation, an Indian NGO, to provide water to the rural poor in a pilot project. Their drinking water meets or exceeds WHO standards for very modest price -- currently set at Rupee 1 for 15 litres!

Recharging of ground water by building barrages and holding dams and providing safe drinking water to all communities should be taken up as a national priority by the government. Ashok Gadgil's technology will be helpful in making this dream a reality.

External links:

Colonizing Body and Mind
WaterHealth International
Nandi Foudnation

Subhash Kak

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: Cannot agree more.

Its a totally valid issue which ought to have been adressed by the Indian government much earlier. The row over Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu ...

Posted by Chetan


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