New Delhi: It is no small irony that this Holi, celebrated by drenching friends and family with coloured water, fell a day before World Water Day, 22 March, when the planet takes a pledge to conserve freshwater.
For perspective, India is home to 1.3 billion people, which means that, roughly, every sixth person in the world is Indian.
As the country recovers from its Holi hangover, it is worth remembering that planet Earth is on the precipice of the worst environmental crisis ever — glaciers are melting, rivers are drying up, temperatures are rising, the air is toxic, animals are going extinct, and natural resources are running out.
One significant victim of unchecked human consumption is potable water — according to government data, the annual per capita availability of water in India reduced from 1,820 cubic metres or 18.2 lakh litres in 2001 to 1,545 cubic metres or 15.5 lakh litres in 2011, and “may reduce further to 1,341 and 1,140 in the years 2025 and 2050, respectively”.
In the 60 years from 1951 to 2011, per capita water availability in India came down by 70 per cent.
A per capita water availability of below 1,700, cubic metres, or 17 lakh litres, is considered a “water-stressed condition”.
Problems appear smaller when they seem further away. Flashing public service announcements declaring an impending “Day Zero” in foreign cities — where the likes of Cape Town, London, Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Istanbul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Mexico City will literally run out of water — raises fleeting alarm bells for people in India.
But add Bengaluru, capital of Karnataka and India’s silicon valley, to the list, as reports did in 2018, and the problem is closer home.
The Third Pole, a website that tracks Asia’s water crises, explains that “while India’s water footprint — 980 cubic metres per capita — ranks below the global average of 1,243 cubic metres, its 1.2 billion people collectively contribute to a significant 12 per cent of the world’s total water footprint”.
In the past 30 years, the total number of extraction wells in Bengaluru has risen from 5,000 to 4.5 lakh. Wells in Punjab and Haryana are drying up, witnessing drops in water levels by up to two to four metres.
By 2040, “most of the world won’t have enough water to meet demand year-round”, a Vox headline reads. Doomsday cover stories are dime a dozen, but why is behavioural change so slow on the uptake despite all the visible signs?
Understanding the crisis
There is no shortage of water on Earth — the ‘blue planet’ stores roughly 326 million trillion gallons of it that never actually leaves the globe. As we learned in the Vox segment of the Netflix documentary series Explained, “Water may freeze into ice or evaporate into air, but it doesn’t leave our planet.”
The problem is that 97 per cent of this water is salty and unfit for human consumption, and 2 per cent of it remains frozen at the North and South poles as glaciers and ice-sheets — leaving only 1 per cent of freshwater for humanity and non-aquatic animals.
This 1 per cent is also not equitably distributed between countries, states, cities, or even districts, leading to conflicts — the Indus Water Treaty becomes a trump card for strategic strong-arming whenever India and Pakistan conflicts escalate, and several Indian states are locked in years-old disagreements on water-sharing.
Where this 1 per cent of freshwater is located has determined patterns of human settlement since the dawn of civilisation. The majority of freshwater is located beneath the surface of the earth.
As the human population exploded, leading to the creation of urban living spaces, rampant construction and higher demand for food, the world’s surface water, seen as a public resource, became stressed.
When surface water proved inadequate to meet increasing demands, improving technology made accessing groundwater significantly easier. However, groundwater takes thousands of years to accumulate and replenish itself — time that the human species is not granting the earth’s aquifers.
According to research by NASA, “groundwater beneath the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan has decreased by more than 88 million acre-feet” in the past decade. That’s roughly 29 trillion gallons or 109.7 lakh crore litres.
Why we have no water
“The problem isn’t just that there’s more people on earth using water, it’s how we’re using water,” the Vox documentary explains, adding that merely 8 per cent of annual freshwater use can be attributed to personal needs, while a staggering 70 per cent goes to agriculture and the remaining 22 per cent to industry.
To put this into context, the documentary says that most of the water that goes into bringing you one bottle of Coca Cola isn’t actually the soft drink: “98 per cent of the water is actually embedded in all the ingredients that were grown to make that bottle of Coca Cola,” Betsy Otto, a water resource analyst, tells Vox in the documentary.
Tracing the hidden water footprint puts a lot of things into perspective — it takes 130 litres of water to make one cup of coffee, nearly 2,500 litres for a cotton t-shirt, over 12,000 litres for a smartphone, and a minimum of 52,000 litres for a car.
One of the leading arguments in favour of vegetarianism isn’t a moral-ethical one at all, but a practical one.
Less than half a kilogram of chicken requires 1,750 litres water to produce. Large portions of crop-land across the world are dedicated to growing food, not for humans, but for the animals they will eventually eat.
As Business Insider reported, “A calorie of meat requires 10 times as much water to produce as a calorie of food crops”, adding that “the current US diet provides about 3,600 calories per day with substantial meat consumption”.
The world is eating more meat, with the average per capita consumption doubling globally in the past 50 years, a review in journal Science said.
In simple economic terms, water is the world’s most undervalued resource — it is cheap. Unlike the majority of commodities, water does not abide by capitalistic economic theory.
Farmers pay next to nothing for water, and inefficient irrigation practices have only exacerbated water wastage by allowing extremely dry regions in Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana to grow water-exhaustive crops like wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton.
But raising the price of water means that those most dependent on the resource for their livelihood will have to pay an inequitable tax — in a country like India, where a significant portion of the population is poor and/or employed in agriculture, the consequences could be dire.
To add to these problems, symptoms of climate change like erratic weather patterns, rising temperatures and melting glaciers have made available water increasingly unreliable.
Hotter summers and drier and unpredictable weather patterns mean increasing droughts and floods, leading to loss of life and livelihood.
In a recent speech, chief executive of the UK Environment Agency, James Bevan, said that the United Kingdom could lose up to 80 per cent of its freshwater in the next 30 years.
“Decreased rainfall, population growth, wastefulness and leaky pipes are posing an existential threat,” NBS News quoted him as saying.