Rethinking Water Management

By Vikas Shah, COO, WaterHealth International

Vikas Shah, COO, WaterHealth International

Headquartered in the U.S., WaterHealth International is a global leader in providing access to safe, WHO-quality affordable drinking water to underserved communities. 

While nearly three fourths of the Earth is covered by water, only about 2.5 percent of this is fresh water, the rest is saline water contained in the oceans. Further as little as 1 percent of this already limited quantity of freshwater is easily extractable. In other words, less than 0.007 percent of all the water in the world is accessible for human use. These are the water sources found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and underground sources that are shallow enough to be tapped at an affordable cost.

Moreover water resources are not evenly distributed across the world; some regions have surplus water while many others face severe scarcity of water. Asia has about 35 percent of the world’s available fresh water reserves but over 60 percent of the global population. However, South America is more fortunate in that respect as the continent is home to only about 6 percent of the world’s population but has access to over 25 percent of the fresh water reserves.

As per a UN estimate, nearly 700 million people in the world suffer from water scarcity today. With growing population, urbanization and industrial development, the usage of water will only increase in the coming years, leading to a severe strain on existing water reserves. Alarmingly as much as two thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions in less than ten (10) years from now.
Coming to India, the country has over 16 percent of the world’s population but only four percent of the world’s water reserves. Moreover due to burgeoning human population and indiscipline use, severe neglect and over-exploitation of existing water reserves, the country is already in a vulnerable position and is likely to be ‘water-stressed’ soon. It is estimated that by 2050, India will report the highest demand for water in the world, requiring nearly 2,413 billion liters in a day!

The problem of absolute scarcity of fresh water is augmented by the problem of water pollution (caused predominantly by the industrial sector) which further reduces the availability of clean, usable water. In such a scenario it becomes imperative to not only manage the available water resources well but also to identify novel ways of supplementing such sources.

Some countries have adopted innovative and workable solutions to augment their water provisioning. Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) is producing ‘NEWater’ which is ‘reclaimed’ wastewater that is purified using conventional water treatment processes as well as dual membrane (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies. This way wastewater which would otherwise have been discharged into the ocean is treated and utilized. Currently ‘NEWater’ is being used for non-potable industrial and commercial uses as well as for supplementing Singapore’s potable water supply which meets nearly one third of the country’s total water demand. It is projected that NEWater will meet up to 55 percent of Singapore’s water demand by 2060.
In Germany, political will and effective management of water tariff have caused a substantial change in residential water consumption; consequently while per capita consumption of water was predicted to increase (by earlier forecasts), it actually declined between 1991 and 2004 by over 13 percent.
Learning from these and similar practices, our options for effective water management to counter the current situation in India may include:

1. Adaptation of best known irrigation practices like micro irrigation to increase water usage efficiency. 
2. Use of hybrid seeds in agriculture, which requires limited water for production. 
3. Adoption of rainwater harvesting and watershed management which will result in aquifer recharge. 
4. Grant of government subsidies for recycling and treatment of industrial wastewater or for import of new technologies which consume less water. 
5. Education of common public on water conservation through various platforms and programs.
6. Implementation of the National Water Policy in a stringent manner.
Some of these recommendations may require strong political will as well as some painful (anti common man) legislation. Hence one may have to look at other practicable measures.

1. India is blessed with a number of rivers, many of which originate in the Himalayas however while some are prone to flooding, others tend to dry up, causing drought-like conditions. Therefore, interlinking of rivers into a National Water Grid, though a complicated exercise will ensure a more regulated supply across regions and seasons. The Government of India is already pursuing this project and this could address the water resourcing issue in the mainland.

2. In addition, India has one of the longest shorelines in the world i.e. 6,100 km. The Government therefore can setup desalination plants along the shore of India (about 500 units), one every 10 – 12 km. These plants could then transport water along the shoreline, a few hundred kilometers into the mainland. Although this project will involve large capital expenditure, this by far will be the most practical/feasible solution for the country.

3. An estimated 62,000 million liters per day (MLD)  sewage gets generated in urban areas  in India about 70 percent of which is discharged into the water bodies thereby contaminating available fresh water sources. Recycle and reuse of this wastewater at a significant scale (as being implemented in Singapore) will serve the dual purposes of increasing available water supply and preventing water pollution. 

Efficient utilization of water is a must to ensure that our future generations are not deprived of water. It is not an insurmountable task; all it requires is the will to implement water conservation and management measures, be it at an individual, community or at the national level.

 

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