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Monday, January 17, 2022

Whither Water

Today is World Environment Day. For those of us living in India, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s message, on the occasion...

Written by R K Pachauri |
June 5, 2003

Today is World Environment Day. For those of us living in India, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s message, on the occasion, holds special significance. He’s marked out the theme of this year’s World Environment Day as ‘‘Water: Two billion people are dying for it’’.

Annan refers to the Millennium Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in August-September 2002, where the international community set measurable, time-bound commitments for the provision of safe water and sanitation. The target: to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities by 2015. At present, one out of six people across the globe lives without regular access to safe drinking water. Over twice that number — about 2.5 billion people — lack access to sanitation. Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds and are responsible for 80 per cent of all illnesses and deaths in the developing world.

India’s record is nothing to boast of. The hot summer temperatures and the acute scarcity of water in most parts of the country lends further urgency to the situation, signalling a need to adopt a totally different approach in managing our natural resources in general and water in particular. Unlike other environmental problems, end-of-pipe solutions can make an enormous difference in case of water. For instance, if low-cost end-of-pipe water purification systems were available to the poorest sections of society, many of the diseases related to polluted water could be eliminated. But in a country where piped water is itself a dream for a large part of the population, this fact appears irrelevant.

It is not enough to just increase spending on the supply of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. Simultaneously, we need to plug the leakage in our system, ensuring that the resources allocated for this sector are utilised honestly and effectively. As the situation becomes more critical, it will lead to a growing need for innovation and original action, including a reorientation of our science and technology programmes.

Take for instance the phenomenon of climate change, which is likely have a serious impact on the region as a whole and on water-related problems in particular. With the Himalayan glaciers receding so rapidly, the water flow in the Northern rivers will obviously be affected unfavourably. The increasing severity and frequency of floods and droughts, consequent to climate change and associated changes in precipitation patterns, would require new approaches to water management during different periods of the year. Besides, agriculture would be severely threatened by droughts and floods, as well as the rising temperatures.

The global community has still not done enough to mitigate the problem of climate change. A substantial effort is required on the part of the developed countries, who have been primarily responsible in the past for the rapidly increasing concentration of so-called greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. But developing countries have to be a part of the global solutions, which should keep in mind the past mistakes of the developed world.

In this scenario, it is certainly in our economic self-interest to employ simple technologies like solar water-heaters instead of using the electric water-heaters. There is significant potential for greater use of renewable energy — such as wind, biomass gasification and even solar photovoltaics — the cost of which would compete favourably with grid-based power in remote rural areas. But our efforts will hardly make a difference globally if the developed countries continue their current path of unsustainable development, which is destructive for the global environment.

Sadly, the worst impacts of climate change would be suffered by the developing countries, partly because of their poverty and lack of physical infrastructure to counter the damage of cyclones, storm surges and other extreme events. Worse still, these impacts are likely to multiply with climate change, such as rise in sea-level, which is already threatening the survival of the small island states and could inundate the low-lying areas of Bangladesh and Sundarbans.

So, this year’s World Environment Day is not only significant because of our present concerns about water, but also because of the focus on the unsustainability of the present growth and development plans being pursued in most parts of the world. Sustainable development is not merely a term to be used glibly by politicians and leaders of public opinion. It is at the root of human welfare as a whole. The protection of our natural resources, on which the livelihoods of such a large number of people in India and other developing countries depends, cannot become a reality as long as our overall approach to development is unsustainable.

Take a look at the figures. Environmental damage is already costing the country over 10 per cent loss of GDP annually, according to estimates developed by TERI’s GREEN India 2047 research. Between 11-26 per cent of agricultural output is being lost on account of soil degradation. While in recent years there has been an expansion of forest area, the total degraded land in the country is estimated at 187.8 million hectares as against a total of 112 million hectares that existed in 1947. Population growth has also reduced the per capita availability and access to the services provided by natural resources. The worst sufferers are the poorest of the poor. One estimate states that 30 per cent of the services that the poor receive comes directly from the use of natural resources. These include fuel, fodder, and even food in the case of tribals who depend entirely on forest produce, as well as the use of resources such as water in the depleted and polluted village pond.

The 10th Five Year Plan has defined an approach to poverty reduction that emphasises the importance of natural resources, such as healthy forests as assets for providing a variety of benefits to the economy. It also mentions that though the recorded forest area is about 23 per cent of the geographical area of the country, 41 per cent happens to be degraded, thus limiting the role of forests in environmental sustainability and meeting the needs of the people, industry and other sectors. Agriculture, in particular, also suffers from distortions such as fertiliser subsidies, underpricing of power and irrigation, imbalances in the use of N,P,K as well as excessive use of water leading to water-logging in many areas. Political expediency results in decision makers shying away from correcting these pricing distortions, which have serious and widespread effects.

On this World Environment Day, it is necessary to focus on the aberrations that we have created in the past in the management of our critical natural resources and bring about general awareness about the importance of rebuilding those which have either been degraded or destroyed. The returns from building these natural assets, even in sheer economic terms, would be much higher than from physical assets in factories and farms.

(The writer is the director general of TERI)

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