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water, water, might not be everywhere

STORY OF WATER, PART 1: Let us tell you how climate change impacts our water-stressed country and what we can do about it.

H2O. It’s that simple. Water is technically a collection of billions of these molecules. But water as we know it, is almost never just H2O. Seawater, for example, also has salt. Groundwater, depending on where you live, has a mix of minerals. Millions are spent each year to filter and purify water because while our blue-green planet is mostly blue, only 0.007% of it is readily available for us and other species to share. It’s like looking at a cookie jar but only getting to eat a crumb.

It was exhilarating for our species, to say the least, when a student discovered water streaks on Martian land. Because when scientists evaluate whether or not another planet could sustain life, one of the key ingredients they search for is water. As obvious as it may be, water is essential to all living things. So, I want us to dive into something not so obvious; the water available today, how it is being used, and the impact of climate change and rising pollution on it.

changing climate, changing water

Our planet is blessed with the water cycle. To think that we might have the same water as when dinosaurs walked our planet is incredible to me. But our water cycle is changing. We’ve walked the earth and we’ve made it warmer. Warmer air is able to hold more water vapor so there’s more water being evaporated from the surface. In areas known to be wet, more evaporation means more intense rainstorms, ergo, floods. On the other hand, in drier areas, where soil is already dehydrated and finds it difficult to hold in moisture, excess evaporation intensifies droughts. As the average temperature continues to rise, we can observe a rise in the unpredictable nature of the wind, and so, rainfall pattern. We can, in fact, see it now.

What would you do if you only had 40 liters of water a day? Drink, hopefully eat, basic hygiene would not be a priority. Climate change, population growth, overuse of water, have deepened Jordan’s water crisis offering a glimpse of challenges we all may face, says, Steve Gorelick, Stanford.

According to the United Nations, in less than 10 years, about 10% of humanity could be displaced because of water scarcity while 50% of us would be severely water insecure. Syria, we’ve come to know as an active war zone. But not many of us know that the conflict takes root in water scarcity. It was when individuals were displaced due to lack of water from their region that the conflict began.

Climate change is changing how much water we can access. And it’s usually not a good sign when someone’s betting against you. Since December 2020, water has become a commodity on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange which makes it possible to trade in futures for California’s water market. It means that one is allowed to bet on the degree of water scarcity in the future and benefit off the scarcity.

We withdraw 4.3 trillion cubic meters of freshwater from our planet’s water basin. That roughly weighs as much as the sunken ship, Titanic, but about 3 million of them. Right now, we’re closer to being a sunken ship. But we don’t have to be.

it hits close to home

The consequences of climate change are much more intensely felt in India. The incidence of droughts and floods have increased, and so has their intensity. We spend millions in disaster relief and the resources allocated to the relief funds continue to climb. It also raises the risk of increased salinity of already depleting groundwater aquifers and surface waters. With a growing population, the demand for water will increase too. The declining availability to water is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we use this limited resource. And how to augment the use for efficiency. 

So, where does all the water go?

As an agrarian country slowly being industrialized, around 80% of water available to us goes into irrigation and 8% towards industrial use. On average, 322 liters of water is used to produce plant-based food but 1020 liters to produce 1 liter of cows’ milk, 3265 liters to produce 1 kg of eggs, and 15,415 liters to produce 1 kg of beef.

It’s worth noting that a chunk of agricultural produce is used by industries to further create products, for example, maize to create ethanol. Further, for every 1 liter of wastewater discharged by industries, 5-7 liters of water further gets polluted. So, in actuality, the share of industrial water use is somewhere between 35 – 50% of the total water used in the country. In fact, our industrial water productivity (industrial value add vs. water used) is only 3%.

Fossil fuel powered thermal power plants make for 80% of the industrial water use and naturally create the most wastewater that goes on to pollute our waterways. Fresh pulp and paper, textiles, steel, sugar and fertilizers make for 0.5-2% of the industrial water use each.

Production of meat resulted in 3.5 million tons of wastewater in 2007. That is nearly 100 times as much wastewater as India’s sugar industry generates and 150 times more wastewater than the manufacture of fertilizer creates.

In a country of 1.3 billion, raising 556 million livestock costs 700 million people access to water and sanitation.

treating wastewater

Be it the carbon emitting fossil fuel and meat industry or the water-intensive textile industry or any other industry, the wastewater should be treated before being discharged in our waterways. Around 70% of our surface water has been polluted due to wastewater. Our groundwater table isn’t safe from wastewater either. The excessive use of fertilizers has brought to light the contamination of our groundwater.

It’s not only ecologically responsible but also a sound business investment. A survey conducted by FICCI and CIPT stated that,

  • 83% identified inadequate availability of water as a major risk to their business
  • 60% said inadequate availability of water was already impacting their business
  • 87% said the scarcity would impact their business 10 years down the line

It’s almost been 10 years and businesses can see the impact. To treat wastewater and to reduce pollution of existing waterways will help businesses as well as our planet sustain.

catch the rain

Catch the Rain. On World Water Day, that’s what our Prime Minister urged all of us to do. It’s imperative to literally catch the rain when our capacity to store water is only 209 liters per capita in comparison to 416 liters in China, 2356 liters in Brazil and 8036 liters in Norway.

70 years ago, the per capita water availability was 5 times of what it is today. Experts suggest a strong correlation between a country’s GDP and its ability to store water. Water is used in/for virtually everything, and a surplus means one can export it.

From region to region, authorities have formulated policies to push rainwater harvesting.

  • In Delhi, The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) has directed Group Housing Societies/Institutions/Schools/Hotels/Industrial establishments/Farm Houses in South and South West Districts and group housing societies located outside notified areas of NCT of Delhi where groundwater levels are more than 8 meters below the ground surface to adopt Roof Top Rainwater Harvesting systems in their premises.
  • In Bangalore, every owner or occupier of a building with site area 2400 sq. feet or above or every owner who proposes to construct a building with site area more than 1200 sq. feet shall provide rain water harvesting structures.
  • In Mumbai, the State Government has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for all buildings that are being constructed on plots that are more than 1,000 sq m in size.

be water, my friend - find your flow

One of our former Finance Ministers described Indian budgets as a “gamble on monsoons”. This gamble reflects how intricately monsoons are linked with our economy.

In 2015, the reduced monsoon forecast led to a two-day slump costing the nation’s equities INR 1.5 trillion. Which is why it’s important to preserve and develop other means of accessing water.

All our major cities were once home to thousands, if not hundreds, of water reservoirs. With industrialization, and water management exchanging hands, we lost these long-standing reservoirs. It’s time to revive these lakes, and clean up the rivers that turned into sewage canals.

In 2019, Chennai was one of the first major cities in the world to run out of water—trucking in 10 million liters a day to hydrate its population. But in 2020, the crisis did not revisit the city. The four lakes that feed the city are nearly 14 times fuller than last year. The average ground water level at 5.3 meters is 1. 5 meters higher than it was. They’ve also reduced the supply of freshwater to the industrial clusters by providing them with recycled water. The stormwater department of the Greater Chennai Corporation, along with Chennai Smart City Ltd, has taken up the challenge to restore 210 of the 3,000-odd water bodies in the Chennai Metropolitan Area. Out of these, 39 have been completed.

The same potential can be observed across all major cities.

In the face of changing climate, growing population, growing uncertainty around monsoon, it’s imperative to conserve water and optimize its usage. The onus shouldn’t be just on individuals but communities, businesses as well as institutions. Let’s make water a part of our future, not past.

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