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Solutions evade impending water crisis

Jan 31, 2012

A special session on water on the sidelines of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in the Indian capital, hosted by TERI, sought to seek solutions to the looming global water crisis.

New Delhi: Farmers in the South-Indian state of Tamil Nadu are switching from paddy cultivation to panning for salt. On the other extreme of the sub-continent, hundreds of thousands of people live in harm’s way in the event of a glacial lake outburst-triggered flood, or GLOFs as they are called.

Something sinister connects the two disturbing happenings – amplifying the vulnerabilities of people from the northern Hindu-Kush-Himalayan range to India's southernmost tip, Kanya Kumari, a whopping 1.5 billion people and counting. The least common denominator exasperating the vulnerabilities is the phenomenon of climate change.

This was one of the discussions at an interesting session on Water: Our Global Common at a Delhi Sustainable Development Summit special event organised by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Taking the floor were experts and practitioners exploring directions for solutions –  if not solutions – to an impending water crisis.

According to TERI, the global use of water is expected to increase by 40 per cent by 2020. On the other hand, agriculture, the guzzler of 80 per cent of available fresh water wastes over a half the water it gets. Similarly, four-fifths of all urban water is also wasted. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), two of three people could live under conditions of water stress.

Far from these situations and yet close to the reality, an understanding is emerging, modelled by scientists in the environs of their institutes and simulated through trials in the field. The understanding is giving a glimpse of solutions that could come as the years roll by.

As Dr Eddy Moors of the Centre for Water and Climate suggests, "There is need for time and space specific climate change projections to determine changes in water availability." Besides this, he felt, there is also a need to explore the socio-economic concerns and needs around water.

The solutions will need out-of-the-box thinking, as Moors says, "It is expected that portioning of water over different sectors and regions will be constrained, especially with decreasing quality of water. An integrated river basin approach, therefore, is a possible way forward."

But participants agreed that this is easier said than done as it calls for inter-policy consistency cutting across policies on energy, labour costs, water boards, adaptation policies among many. These also call for government to be in tune with one another on these policies.

As an example, it was mentioned that the glacier-snow melt and run-offs in the Himalayas was getting accentuated with passing time. From the macro, larger picture, there were geographical specific issues with complexions of governance.

As Monish Verma of European Business and Technology Centre pointed out, "Drinking water investments are about three per cent of the national budget. New Delhi has a per capita availability of 211 litres per capita per day (lpcd). The city's Master Plan envisages an increase to 363 lpcd. On paper this looks very impressive, especially against London's 150 lpcd. The governance deficit is obvious," he said, questioning, "why else is water supply limited to three to four hours a day?"

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