Rituraj Phukan

Water is vital for life on Earth and yet the value of this finite resource is perhaps the least considered. It is easier to visualize the trauma of one gasping for breath, for obvious reasons, but not the slow agony of those without adequate water. Our citizens remain oblivious to the significance of a ‘water value’ even though India ranks among the most water scarce countries. Worse still, a majority are unaware of conservation protocols in the face of an impending crisis of water in areas of current abundance.

The theme for the World Water Day 2021 is ‘Valuing Water’. The UN has elaborated that water means different things to different people. In households, schools and workplaces, water can mean health, hygiene, dignity and productivity. In cultural, religious and spiritual places, water can mean a connection with creation, community and oneself. In natural spaces, water can mean peace, harmony and preservation. And yet, water is under extreme threat from a growing population, increasing demands of agriculture and industry, and the worsening impacts of climate change.

This theme holds special relevance to India, with current and projected scarcity and prevalence of general apathy towards sustainable use of available water resources in the country. Nearly three years back, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog report on the Composite Water Management Index revealed the extent of the water crisis in India, with 600 million people in the grip of high to extreme water stress. The report projected that by 2030, the country’s water demand will be twice the available supply, implying severe scarcity for hundreds of millions of people.

India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index and up to 70% of water supply in India is likely to be contaminated, with around two lakh deaths every year attributed to inadequate safe water access. Critical groundwater resources, which account for 40% of our water supply, are being depleted at unsustainable rates. Droughts are becoming more frequent, creating severe problems for farmers, as 53% of agriculture in India is dependent on rainfall.

The Himalayan Watersheds, comprising the valleys of the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra and the Mekong are home to over 40% of the human population. Studies predict dire impacts of warming on ‘Asia’s Water Towers’, with one data-based index of ‘hydro-political’ issues in areas with a history of ‘transboundary water resources’, including the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin among the five global hotspots that are likely to see ‘water wars’.

The first Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Assessment Report projected the loss of over a third of extant glaciers even if global warming is contained at 1.5 Celsius above the pre-industrial levels by 2100. However, average temperatures in the HKH region have already increased by 1.3 degrees Celsius and scientists believe that 40% of the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau could disappear by 2050.

The agrarian economy of north India is dependent on these Himalayan rivers and changes in the volume and flow will impact agriculture everywhere. It is expected that faster melting of glaciers will initially cause a surfeit and lead to more flooding. However, in the long run the loss of glaciers will reduce the flow volume of rivers and eventually cause water scarcity in the hills and valleys, an unimaginable prospect for these regions of copious rainfall.

The first ever Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region Climate last year further presented a grim analysis of observed changes and future projections including precipitation changes, temperature rise, droughts, sea level rise, extreme weather events, etc., aggravating the water crisis.

The global climate crisis is inextricably linked to water and it was reflected in the chosen theme for World Water Day 2020, which was ‘Water and Climate Change’. Climate change increases variability in the water cycle, inducing extreme weather events, reducing the predictability of water availability, affecting water quality, and threatening sustainable development and biodiversity worldwide.

Under the theme of valuing water, the 2021 campaign has suggested five different perspectives to create a comprehensive understanding of how water is valued by different people in different contexts so we can safeguard this precious resource for everyone.

The first perspective is about valuing the natural water resources and ecosystems. All water is generated by ecosystems and all the water we extract for human use eventually returns to the environment, along with any contaminants we have added. The water cycle is our most important ‘ecosystem service’.

Secondly, valuing water infrastructure like storage, treatment, and supply is critical. Where this infrastructure is inadequate, socio-economic development is undermined and ecosystems tend to be endangered. For example, nearly 40% of piped water in India was estimated to be lost due to leakage and dripping. Typical valuations of water infrastructure tend to underestimate social and environmental costs of making water available to the public.

Next, it is important to understand the value of providing water services like drinking water, sanitation and health, which are often undervalued and often subsidized. Fourthly, despite being fundamental to food security, water in food production is generally given a low value and wider benefits like improving nutrition, generating income, and adapting to climate change are ignored. Agriculture places the biggest demand on global freshwater resources and is a major contributor to environmental degradation.

The final perspective is about valuing the socio-cultural aspects of water including recreational, cultural, and spiritual attributes are also important. Water is an intrinsic part of every culture but the values we attribute to these functions are difficult to quantify or articulate.

How we value water determines how water is managed and shared. ‘Valuing water’ is about much more than its price and the global campaign aims to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of how water is valued by different people in different contexts. An appreciation of the true value of this critical resource is vital for achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 and ensuring water and sanitation for all by this decade.

(Published on the occasion of UN World Water Day today.)