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World water day : challenges ahead

© UNICEF/India/2007
Coping with water scarcity

By Dinesh C Sharma

New Delhi, March 21: This year's theme of World Water Day - 'Coping with water scarcity' - comes as yet another reminder of the challenges India faces as it aspires to achieve fast track economic growth over the next five years.

Increasing food production, a quantum leap in industrial output and accelerated improvements in public services will underpin economic growth from 2007 to 2012, the period covered by the X1th Five Year Plan, according to the approach paper issued by the Planning Commission in December 2006. Each of these inputs will raise additional demands on already depleted fresh water resources.

Water scarcity is defined when the availability of fresh water falls below 2,750 litres per person per day or 1,000 kilolitres per person per year. That’s enough water to fill a large swimming pool over the course of a year. But that’s the minimum amount of fresh water we need – for food, industry, products, services, amenities, as well as our domestic consumption. India, with 16% of the world’s population, has only 4% of its fresh water resources - most of which falls as the monsoon rain in a few weeks, and quickly runs off to the sea. And national statistics cover up major disparities in water availability. A state like Rajasthan, with 8% of the countries population (and 25% of its cows) has only 1% of its water resources.

Food is particularly expensive in terms of the amount of fresh water needed to grow it, process it and bring it ‘to the table’. In a report released on the eve of World Water Day, 22nd March, UN-Water states that each calorie of food energy we consume needs about a litre of water. And we need 1,800 to 2,300 calories every day. 
So, growing more food means consuming more water. In order to boost agriculture production, India plans to double the rate of growth in irrigated areas over the next five years. Hopefully something will be done to improve irrigation efficiency at the same time – most irrigation water never reaches the roots of plants, but is lost to seepage, run off or evaporation. 

Demand for fresh water in the industrial and urban sectors will also rise with rapid industrialization and demographic shifts that will make the majority of Indians town and city dwellers by 2030. Urbanization and industrialization will pollute the same scarce resource unless we do more to regulate how water is used – applying the principle of “the polluter pays”. At the moment, the people who pay are India’s poor – those in rural habitations and urban slums. They pay, most of all, with their lives. Using WHO data, an estimated 350,000 children under five die of diarrhea alone every year – just under 1,000 a day, every day.     



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