Saturday, May 31, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Living on a spoonful of water!
Juhi Bakhshi

Living on a spoonful of water!

The wars of the next century will be about water.

— Ismail Serageldin, Vice-President, World Bank

WE call ours a blue planet. It seems pretty blue when astronomers view it from outer space. The reason, of course, for this is that nearly 71 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered with water — a fact that might easily mislead us into believing that we have at our disposal just too much of water to ever feel its scarcity. But this assumption has, in recent times, proved to be tragically false. Plenty of water there might be, but the quantity of water that is fit for human consumption is very, very limited.


Of all the water on earth, almost 97.5 per cent is salt water, and of the remaining 2.5 per cent fresh water, some 70 per cent is frozen in the polar icecaps. The other 30 per cent is mostly present as soil moisture or lies in underground aquifers. In the end, less than 1 per cent of the world’s total fresh water (or about 0.007 per cent of all the water on earth) is readily accessible for direct human usage. This is the water that is found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and in underground sources shallow enough to be tapped at affordable cost. To understand the situation better, visualise this — if all the earth’s water fits in a gallon jug, available fresh water would be equal to just over a tablespoon.

And it is from this spoonful of water that the entire world has been trying to quench its thirst. And a spoonful just does not seem enough. It can easily spill into that jug of non-usable water and leave us with precious little to quench our thirst. Does the idea of a thirsty, drought-stricken mankind seem too far-fetched? It really would not appear so if we were to take a look at some of the facts and figures that environmental agencies have presented before us in recent times.

Here are some facts that should shake us out of our complacency:

The fresh water available amounts to less than one-half of the 1 per cent of all the water on the earth. Fresh water is renewable only by rainfall, at the rate of 40,000 to 50,000 cubic kilometres per year. Due to intensive urbanisation, deforestation, water diversion and industrial farming, however, even this small finite source of fresh water is disappearing fast. If the present trends persist, the water in all river basins on every continent could steadily get depleted.

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years. According to a United Nations study, more than one billion people on the earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. Forty per cent people live in countries where water is scarce: by 2025, this is expected to rise to 66 per cent.

The greatest environmental disaster afflicting the planet is the scourge of dirty drinking water. Dirty water kills 2.2 million a year in developing countries. Most of the victims are children.

In fact, the water crises the world over has reached such immense proportions that the international community took it up as one of the main issues at the Earth Summit held at Johannesburg a couple of months ago. The summit focused on "Water — Its Rapid Depletion and Deterioration". The Earth Summit had itself been held in a land threatened by famine, estimated to affect nearly 10 million people across southern Africa. In Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Swaziland and Lesotho, the main cause of famine is drought. On the other hand, floods have in recent times been the cause of widespread misery in much of central Europe.

In India also, when the summer season is at it’s peak, dismal reports of acute water shortage begin to hit newspaper pages. India — which has 16 per cent of the world’s population, 2.45 per cent of the world’s land area and 4 per cent of the world’s water resources — is already heading towards a state of water crisis. A late monsoon last year had resulted in drought in 13 of the 29 states in the country. But drought apart, otherwise too there is a huge gap between the quantity of water that is made available to us by Mother Nature and the quantity that we are utilising.

Check out the following to measure the water poverty that we in India face. And the situation, the experts warn, is only going to get worse. The reservoir of underground water, estimated at 432 billion cubic metres (BCMs), has been declining at a rapid rate of 20 cm annually in as many as 15 states. As a result, it is feared that major metropolitan centres may go dry as early as 2015 on account of over-exploitation and misuse of water resources. Studies conducted by the UNindicate that the rate at which the underground reservoirs are being emptied all over the world, including India, is at least 10 times faster than it can be naturally recharged.

In Tamil Nadu, the watertable has dropped by 30 m in 30 years and many aquifers have run dry. According to a study done by the New Delhi-based Central Ground Water Board, it will take just 2,600 additional large tubewells, those of the kind being installed by large housing societies, industries, educational institutions and hotels, running at an average of 10 hours per day, to exhaust the entire reserve of underground water in Delhi. The rate of water withdrawal by existing tubewells in Delhi as it is exceeds the amount replenished by rain to the extent of a good 13 per cent. The annual rains add approximately 7 per cent to the reserves every year. The rate of withdrawal by existing tubewells, however, amounts to nearly 20 per cent. This kind of over-pumping of ground water, experts warn, can magnify the concentration of pollutants in the water that remains, and in many cases polluted surface water or salty sea water pours into the aquifer to replace the ground water, making it impossible to farm.

The ecological consequences of drawing heavily on ground water too are grave. Deep aquifers, experts say, are a vital link in the hydrological cycle because they release water slowly into rivers, lakes and wetlands in the dry seasons and soak up water to prevent flooding in the wet times. The only reason that many of the world’s great rivers such as the Niger and the Nile flow all year round is because of ground water release. Take too much and the result is dried-up wetlands and river beds, environmentalists warn.

The problem of urban water scarcity is further expected to intensify in the near future. Studies indicate that by 2050, more than 50 per cent of the Indian population will have shifted to cities, making water scarcity an acute problem. The water conflicts between states as well as between nations too are expected to intensify on this account. The states that figure high on the list of potential water scarcity are Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

Water disputes between states and nations are not uncommon as is apparent from long-standing issues like sharing of Cauvery waters and Narmada-Sabarmati dispute. Considering India’s bleak water scenario, trouble could also arise over water issues with neighbours like Pakistan and Bangladesh. India controls major watercourses that supply water to these countries. India’s Farakka Barrage diverts the Ganga water away from Bangladesh. Currently, India is proposing the construction of another barrage on the Brahmaputra in Assam, effectively controlling all of Bangladesh’s water supply.

The recent release of waters from the Narmada into the Sabarmati must have given rise to much salutation of the river as a life-giver, but we have as a nation never done enough to take care of rivers, our lifelines. Several perennial flows like the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak are becoming seasonal. Rivers are drying up or declining in volume. The Yamuna supplying water to Delhi and Agra is highly polluted, mainly because waste water that is discharged from Delhi, Mathura, Agra and Etawah into the river is untreated and the river does not flow fast enough to dilute the load of pollutants. The marauding of the Ganga is now an oft-discussed issue. There are vast stretches of Indian rivers that are unable to support fish on account of the levels of pollution caused by discharge of untreated effluents. Of the total water that we pollute, only one-tenth of the waste water from cities is treated. As a result, of the 85 per cent of the country’s urban population that has access to drinking water, only 20 per cent receives drinking water that meets the health and safety standards.

Acute scarcity and growing pollution have prompted the Government of India to set for itself the target of cleaning all major rivers of India by 2007. But keeping in mind the government’s track record of meeting deadlines, we should not be too optimistic about the issue. Measures being considered by the government to tackle the water scarcity problem are harvesting of rainwater, spreading awareness, intelligent damming of river waters and encouraging traditional water-harvesting techniques. What we all need to understand is that the ecological and environmental crises that we all have been talking and hearing about so far, are no more problems of the future. The calamity is staring us right in the face. If we don’t wake up to the facts now, it might just be too late.


You need not be an environmental activist to contribute your bit to guard the blue gold. Here are a few small tips that can help:

  • You waste up to 7 litres of water when you leave the tap open to brush your teeth. Use a mug or a tumbler to shave, brush or wash your face.

  • You use up to 50-100 litres of water every time you wash your car. Avoid doing so everyday. Give your car a sponge bath and if possible use a bucket instead of a hose pipe to wash the vehicle.

  • Use a watering can to water the plants. Reuse the water you use to wash the vegetables in.

  • Toilets require 7 to 10 litres of water for flushing every time. Use flushing systems that allow you to control the amount of water you flush.

  • Take a bucket bath instead of a shower bath. As much as 25 litres of water, the amount equivalent to letting a shower run for only 2.5 minutes, assuming a flow rate of 10 litres a minute, might be all the water that a whole family may need in a day.

  • Fix all the leaking taps at once and close any tap you find open, even though it might be a roadside one.

  • Plant a tree. Trees help conserve water.

  • Use recycled stationery. Consume less paper. Paper is made from felled trees.

  • Be aware and care for the environment. The problem is ours and not somebody else’s.