Water is one of the most precious elements of life on the planet. It is critical for satisfying the basic human needs, health, food production, energy and maintenance of regional and global ecosystems.
Over 70% of the human body is made up of water. A human being may survive without food for several days but water deprivation can kill a person within a matter of hours.
Life is, therefore, tied to water, as it is tied to air and food. And food is indeed tied to water.
Water could well be the only natural resource to touch all aspects of human civilization.
Issues of food or health or sanitation, environment or cities or energy production, the 21st century has to deal with water quality and management.
Yet, while water sustains life, it can also cause deaths if contaminated. Some of the deadliest diseases, which kill millions around the world every year, are carried in unclean water. In fact, unsafe water and sanitation cause an estimated 80% of all diseases in the developing world, where as much as 90% of waste water is discharged without treatment. An estimated 50 to 100 lakhs people die every year-including one child every 15 second from diseases caused by poor water quality; 25,000 people are dying every day from malnutrition.
Let us look at some of the different dimensions of this crisis.
About 120 crores of people (20% of the global population) spread across 40 countries do not have access to safe water; 240 crores of people lack adequate sanitation services.
There is no more fresh water on earth today than there was 2000 years ago when population was 3% of its current size! In the past 100 years, the world population was tripled but water use by humans has multiplied sixfold. Women in Africa and Asia walk an average distance of 6 km a day to collect water.
Fresh water fishing, a key livelihood activity around the world, is under threat. More than 20% of the world's known - 10,000 - fresh water fish species have become extinct, been threatened or endangered in recent decades.
Daily water use per person is about 600 litres in residential areas of North America and Japan and 250-350 litres in Europe whereas per capita water use per day in sub Sahara region is a mere 10 litres. (Per capita use of water in India is about 50 litres per day).
It is reckoned that one flush of a western toilet uses as much water as the average person in the developing world uses for a whole day's washing, drinking, cleaning and cooking!
Over the next 20 years, the world's population will increase from the present 6.4 billion to an estimated 7.2 billion whereas the average supply of water per person is expected to fall by one-third. The hardest hit will be the poorest.
According to UN, by 2025 as many as 500 crores of people will be facing water shortage; as many as 270 crores will face severe water shortages, if the world continues consuming water at the present rate.
Water scarcity is estimated to cause annual global losses of 350 million tonnes of food production by 2025.
Save every drop of water today, because water shortage could well lead to the next world war. Unless appropriate measures are taken immediately, the world would soon face threats to global good supply; further environmental damage and ongoing health risks for the hundreds of millions of people lacking access to clean water.
"Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict" (Kofi Annan).
There are 215 trans-boundary rivers whose basins cover 50 percent of all land areas; 32% of the national boundaries are formed by water. Consequently, UN has identified 300 potential water conflict zones.
Why the Crisis?
Water covers 70% of the planet but more than 97.5% of the surface water is ocean which, obviously, is not usable in industry, agriculture or as drinking water. (Desalination is far too expensive to be for widespread adoption).
The fresh water on which the world depends represents a mere 2.5% of available water. But then, three-quarters of this fresh water is trapped in the form of snow and ice. That is, all that is available for human use (and, of course, for animals as well) is 0.6% of the surface water!
Population growth, climate change, overuse/ misuse of water and pollution of available water are the principal causes of the crisis.
Irrigation accounts for two-thirds of global use of fresh water. Farmers use water less efficiently and withdraw more water to compensate for water losses. In developing countries 60% is wasted or used inefficiently.
Major sources of water pollution are human wastes, industrial wastes and chemicals and pesticides and fertilizers used for farming.
We have been pumping groundwater faster than aquifers can recharge.
Most of the water reservoirs are suffering reductions in storage capacity as a result of sedimentation caused by deforestation; on an average 1 % of the water storing capacity of the storage reservoirs is being lost annually.
Much of the municipal water supply is lost before it reaches consumers, leaking out of water mains, pipes or faucets or disappearing through illegal taps.
In plain terms, as far as fresh water is concerned, the world has been living way beyond its means.
Of all the planet's renewable resources, fresh water may well be the most unforgiving;difficult to purify, expensive to transport and impossible to substitute.