Ever-increasing demands on rapidly diminishing water sources can devastate the planet's ecosystem. This bleak scenario can yet be improved, says Chitkala Zutshi, (IAS) Member, Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority.
Today, we live in a world of over 7 billion or 700 crore people. The world population is expected to reach the figure of 9 billion by 2042. Compare this with the world of 10,000 BC, or 12,000 years ago, just a wink of an eye in geological terms. The human race consisted of no more than 10 million or 1 crore souls then. They were all hunter-gatherers; they hunted animals and gathered wild plants for their subsistence. They drank from streams and water holes and definitely knew how to keep these sources free of pollution and human waste.
Water is the basis of life and they knew it. Humans worshipped nature ù the nature they were dependent on for their survival. Animism, the ancient form of nature worship, is the oldest religion known to mankind. Small bands of hunter-gatherers ranged over vast tracts of land. But as the population grew, these people had to improve the productivity of their land. This improvement in productivity came about with the introduction of farming. In the Middle East, cereals such as emmer and barley started to be cultivated.
By 3,500 BC, most human beings were farmers and would remain so until the 20th century. Man was ôsettledö now and water had to be available in all seasons, round the year, at one place. He needed to channel and store water. Mesopotamia, the ôcradleö of civilization and perhaps of agriculture, is a prime example of how human farming communities created large-scale irrigation systems and learnt to store water and protect themselves from floods.
A basic need
Over the next 1,000 years, these early farming communities grew, acquired sophistication and entered the Bronze Age. The demand for water thus underwent a further change. Water, from being the basic of simple needs, became the basic of aided food production and then of manufacture of trade, of strife even.
Farming came to the Nile Valley in 5,000 BC. If the Egyptian civilization was the gift of the Nile waters, it was the Yellow River, or the Huang-He, along with the Yangtze, that gave birth to the ancient Chinese civilization. The Chinese began farming by 5,000 BC. In the Indus Valley, farming settlements began around 4,000 BC. By 2,600 BC towns and cities had been established. In Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, the houses even had bathrooms and wells. The cities had an elaborate underground drainage system.
The period beginning in about 1,000 BC saw the rise of the Iron Age. The Aryans descended upon India and established their proto-Hindu culture. The Amazon basin of South America saw the rise of agriculture as early as 6,500 BC when potatoes, chillies and beans began to be cultivated. The domestication of animals followed. By 2,000 BC, irrigation systems were being developed.
A remarkable shift in agricultural practices has taken place in the last century with the development of world markets and in response to new technology. There has been a sharp increase in yields with the use of pesticides and fertilizers and with modern agronomy and plant breeding. This has however caused ecological damage and has had negative effects on human health. Issues crucial to human welfare such as degradation of land and water resources, including aquifers, have arisen. The effects of global warming on agriculture are not even properly understood.
In recent years, climate change, population growth, incentives for non-food bio-fuel crops and the overdevelopment of farmland has caused food shortages, and sometimes even riots, in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Mexico.
The generation of electricity came with its discovery in the early 1800s by the British scientist Michael Faraday. And electricity has been generated in central stations since 1882. Water-driven turbines generate approximately 16 per cent of the worldÆs electricity. Thermal power plants are also water dependent and account for 40 per cent of all electricity generated.
Water and the agriculture sector
A paper (ESA working Paper No. 12-03, June 2012) prepared by an FAO team in 2012 has argued that at the global level there should be 'no major constraints to increasing agricultural produce by the amounts required to satisfy the additional demand generated by population and income growth to 2050.'
However, the paper also argues that there is 'no guarantee' that 'such increases in agricultural produce will be forthcomingö. If such increases have to come, there will have to be necessary investments made and the 'right policies will have to be followed providing incentives to farmers, particularly in countries whose food demand must primarily be satisfied by domestic production.'
An increase in food production can come from an increase in the available cultivated land area and an increase in food productivity. Land and water are finite natural resources. The scarcity of land and water for food production is compounded by the increasing demands of urbanisation, industrialisation and bio-fuel production.
Will the freshwater sources of our planet be sufficient to satisfy the growing needs of agriculture and non-agriculture users?
The 2030 Water Resources Group, formed in 2008, had put together a report regarding a strategy to be followed to achieve water resource security. This attempt was the outcome of a mission set out at the Second World Water Forum at The Hague in 2000: 'To make water everybody's business', in the words of HRH the Prince of Orange, Chairman of the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. The report has come to the conclusion that the ever increasing water demand of our growing population and economy, 'combined with the impacts of climate change, are already making water scarcity a reality in many parts of the world'.
There has been severe damage to livelihoods, human health and ecosystems. By the end of the next 20 years, the demand for water will be 40 per cent higher than today and more than 50 per cent higher in the most rapidly developing countries.
Climate change plays an important role; agriculture demands more water and so does reservoir replenishment. If the future has to be sustained, we will have to achieve a reversal of current trends in each category. Taking into consideration today's accelerated pace of human development and the slow pace of handling issues related to water, the crisis is already at our doorstep.
The OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050 has predicted the following scenario:
However, very exact quantifications are difficult to find. I would however like to quote from the 2010 Global Food and Water Research Crisis Programme Round Table findings which answered questions such as: (a) How will the quantity of water required change between now and 2050? (b) What existing and new water sources are likely to be available over the next 40 years? (c) What are the implications of water shortfalls? The Round Table concludes that by 2050 there will be a 'gap' between the supply and demand for water at the macro level. How large the gap is likely to be is difficult to estimate. Geographically, the gap will be large in some regions, while water surpluses will still continue to exist in some areas. 'Nevertheless, water scarcity is already shaping up as the greatest challenge facing many nations,' according to the proceedings. The water 'gap' is estimated to be 3,000 Cu km of water a year.
So where is that water going to come from? It is evident that we, the thinking humans, will have to go through a transformation in the way we think about water and the way we make use of water. The agriculture sector will face the greatest difficulties; it will have to come up with water saving systems and techniques, prevent the leeching of pollutants into waterways and water storages and prevent the inflow of pollutants. The domestic sector, which is the biggest polluter of water and waterways, will have to take stringent action on a number of fronts: water use in the urban and the semi-urban areas will have to be strictly maintained within prescribed norms. Used water will have to be fully treated before it mingles with streams and waterways or percolates into underground reservoirs.
Technological breakthroughs are certainly being achieved, but these can be effective only if social, economic, environmental and governance issues are properly brought to bear on them.
While accepting as a fact that the future scenario cannot be predicted with any great degree of certainty on account of multiple factors including climate change and technological advancements, I would like to flag the following issues as critical to our handling of water issues:
1)A strict adherence to water norms (quotas) for urban use; 100 per cent treatment of domestic water released into the environment by urban local bodies, gram panchayats and individual households, so that used water is rendered non-toxic to the environment and to life;
2)The proper pricing of water for domestic use. The pricing should take into account not only the cost of supply but the cost of treatment post-use also;
3)The volumetric supply of water for all agricultural purposes; Again, the proper pricing of water for agriculture; The strict control of the quality of water released after irrigation of crops and plants;
4)The proper pricing of water supplied to industry;
5)100 per cent treatment of all industrial effluents.
Each one of us can strive to ensure that at the least the world we leave to our children is no worse than the one we inherited.
This article contains generous inputs from information available on the net on the following:
2)Water sufficiency on Planet Earth for all
3)Drinking water sufficiency in 2050
4)Revolutions in agricultural practices
5)Environmental impacts of irrigation
7)Manufacturing in 100 AD
8)The world in 10,000 BC
About The Author
Chitkala Zutshi (IAS) is Member, Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA). She has served as Additional Chief Secretary (Home & Finance) in the Maharashtra government.