“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”

One of the most startling things I learned on my recent trip to India was that many Indian homes have access to government-supplied water for only one hour a day.

Thus the above quote describes, in slightly exaggerated fashion, one of India’s most challenging problems. It also describes what most of the world is likely to face in coming years. The irony, in the case of India, is that water is an important presence in the life of the subcontinent. Much of the country is surrounded by water: the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Arabian Sea to the west, and the India Ocean to the south. The heavy rains of the Monsoon season have always played an important part in the lives of Indians. Rivers have a storied role in India’s culture and folklore. The Ganges, for example is considered sacred by many who believe that its waters have healing powers.

India’s Infrastructure Development Finance Co. warned, in a December 2011 report, that the country’s rising population and economic growth are straining the available supply of water. Of India’s 20 major river basins, 14 are considered water-stressed; nearly 25 percent of the country’s population lives in water-scarce areas. An average person in India uses only 14 gallons of water per day, much of it of questionable quality, while the average person in Los Angeles California uses 132 gallons a day. Increasing population, rapid urbanization and an increased focus on industrial growth will only deepen India’s water crisis; social and regional conflicts over water availability and rising environmental stress are likely to affect every aspect of Indian life.

Despite this looming crisis, the mainstream media, in India and the rest of the world, have not adequately addressed the seriousness of coming water scarcities. Nitya Jacob, a journalist from India, tried unsuccessfully to persuade editors at India’s leading newspapers to write about the critical water issues facing India. Frustrated by the response he received, Jacob wrote a follow-up letter to the editors, a portion of which is summarized below.

Dear Editor, I was shocked at your response to my request for writing regularly in your newspaper about the importance of water to the people of India. Your newspaper reports on water only when calamity strikes, or there is celebrity opposition to a big-ticket project. It never brings out the work that thousands are doing to ensure that India’s water traditions, among the world’s best and most diverse, do not fade away. For every kilo of newspaper that your reader gets, an estimated 1,000 liters of water are consumed. Most of us, and that includes your staffers, now stare a water crisis in the face. You hold the keys to people’s minds. You need to publish news that affects people, to change attitudes. It is easy to do – just tell your staff to find stories of people saving water in small steps. You will make a big difference to all of us.

While the water problems in India are more acute than many other countries, the lack of clean water is a problem across the globe. Over 1 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water; more than 5 million people die each year from water-related diseases – approximately 10 times as many as are killed in wars each year. Ignorance of the world’s water problems, particularly in the developed economies, can be attributed to the fact that water falls from the sky with reasonable regularity in much of the world and flows abundantly in streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. It has, therefore, been widely viewed as a plentiful, infinitely renewable resource and taken for granted. But looks can be deceiving. Only 3% of all the water on Earth is fresh water and only 1% is readily available for consumption.

Communities have consistently underestimated the true cost of collecting, processing and distributing water and fail to value its immense contribution to a host of essential ecological services. We need to recognize the true worth of water and price it accordingly. If we don’t improve our conservation, sanitation and recycling efforts, the magnitude of the water crisis will continue to expand. As Benjamin Franklin warned, “When the well runs dry, we know the worth of water.” We can’t wait until then to change antiquated beliefs and wasteful habits.

 

 

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