World Water Day: Equitable access to a critical resource

By M. A. Siraj

Air, water and sunshine are three critical resources for conventional life. While sunshine is available on several planets, all the three are found on the Earth alone, thereby making them the USP of this planet. All the three are ‘free goods of Nature’ which sustain the life. Of the three, air and sunshine are freely available to everyone. Water is though freely available, but is not accessible for everyone and everywhere. This makes it a resource that has to be managed, stored, cleaned, conserved and distributed. In fact, water is the most distributed resource on the Earth. Water, in some cases, is also a resource that is owned, controlled and contested. In a world fast urbanizing, this precious liquid is feared to be a source of conflict in future among nations.

How much water on Earth?

It sounds a little bizarre that though 71% of the surface of the earth is covered by oceans and seas, only 2.5% of water on the planet is utilisable by human beings for all their needs. This small quantity is called ‘freshwater’. Of all the freshwater on the Earth, 77% is locked up in the polar ice caps, Tundras of Russia and the Tibetan plateau which is known as the ‘Third Pole’. The rivers emerging from the Himalayas sustain as much as half the human population on the Earth with China on the North and South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) on its southern flank. 22% is found as groundwater while the remaining 1% is either stored in lakes or keeps flowing through the rivers or is present as moisture in the atmosphere.   

Thus only a tiny slice of less than 1% of the water is available as freshwater and it keeps circulating over the Earth through a process called ‘Water Cycle’. Again, 69% of this freshwater is used to irrigate crop lands and allied agricultural activity such as livestock. Another 19% goes for industries and commercial establishments. Remaining 12% goes for household use. Total water on the Earth is estimated to be of the order of 1.4 billion cubic kilometres (1.4 bn.km3). Total renewable water falling on continents and islands each year is 41,000 km3. Actually this is the only water that has been circulating over the Earth since millennia. 

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God has endowed this Earth with water in all three states of the matter i.e., solid (ice), liquid, and gas (vapour). Similarly, water is generally procured from three sources: 1 Groundwater (well, borewells); 2- Surface water (lakes, tanks,) and 3- Running water (rivers, springs,). However, when it comes to accessibility to water, the picture obtaining around the world is a bit complex and gathering further knots as the urbanization proceeds. As we have learnt through the history, civilizations sprouted and blossomed on the banks of river. The water used to be available abundantly at its source but not accessible everywhere. Today the situation has reversed. Water availability is coming down drastically, but technology has made it accessible even in skyscrapers, in flights and large cities and luxury cruises floating over oceans. Over the centuries, the man has developed umpteen devices to carry, cleanse, recycle, reuse, conserve, store and lift water.  

Sustainable Development Goals

Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) being pursued world over, providing clean water and sanitation occupies 7th position. These goals have been mandated by the UN to be achieved by 2030. 

Unesco’s World Water Report 2019 estimates that water use is increasing by 1% per year since the 1980s. It is mainly driven by demographic expansion (increase in population) and will keep increasing till 2050. Today Over two billion people live in countries that are categorized as ‘Water Stressed’ and another four billion experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Three out of ten people across the world do not have access to safe drinking water. Sanitation is also tagged along the water supply and six out of ten people do not have access to safely-managed sanitation services and one out of ten practice open defecation. However, situation varies from region to region and from one nation to another.

But some progress has been achieved under the SDGs. The global population using at least a basic drinking water service increased from 81 to 89% between 2000 and 2015. Similarly, the coverage of safely-managed sanitation too increased from 59% of global population to 68% during the same period.

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Nine countries are the world giants in terms of internal water resources, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s natural freshwater. These are Brazil, Russian Federation, Canada, Indonesia, China Mainland, Columbia, USA, Peru and India. But even here wide variability is observed. For instance, Brazil can boast of per capita availability of 31,795 cubic metre of water from internal resources while it is 7,153 for USA and 1,259 for India.  

The water-poor countries are Israel, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait (and a few smaller ones such as Djibouti, Mala, Gaza strip). For instance, Israel can generate only 1.67 water from internal resources while it comes down to just 0.02 for Kuwait. Then there is a third category of 33 countries which have to depend on other countries for their renewable water sources as the rivers they depend upon originate in other countries.

A research study titled Water Rights and Water Fights by Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel points out that three-fifths of water flowing in all rivers is shared by two or more countries–in253 river basins in 145 countries, where two-fifths of the world’s people live. For example, 34% of water resources in India and 76% of water resources in Pakistan originate from outside the borders of these countries. The Nile River basin is shared by eleven nations that are mutually dependent for their water resources.

These shared water sources are points for potential conflict in future, although no conflicts have so far led to violence or wars. Former US President Kennedy had once remarked that any scientist who satisfactorily addresses the water problem across the globe ought to be conferred with two Nobel Prizes, one for science and another for peace. This being the larger picture of spatial disparity in the distribution of this critical natural resource, the question of equitable access to the fundamental necessity will continue to fuel the quest for solutions.

The writer has been one of the co-authors of book titled Water and Scriptures: Ancient Roots for Sustainable Development published by Springer Nature, New York, in 2016. 

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