By Jayita Mukhopadhyay
Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
Since time immemorial, availability of water has shaped the establishment and growth of human civilization.
The blue gold is fast surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource and the World Bank has already prophesied that the 21st century will be an era of war over water.
Modern agriculture, industrialisation, urbanization and the spiralling population growth have all contributed to an exponential rise in the demand for water. And, as of now, water has no substitute.
Experts have sounded an alarm that within the next 25 years, half of the world’s population could face problems in finding enough fresh water for drinking and irrigation.
According to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report, the access to water is inadequate for an estimated 1.1 billion people in developing countries. The per capita consumption of water is directly proportionate to the economic strength of a country and the standard of living of its people. The average per capita (per person/per day) use of water in Africa is 47 litres/person/day whereas in the USA, it is 578 litres/person/day. Millions of women and young girls are forced to spend hours collecting and carrying water, restricting their opportunities, their choices and even foregoing education.
Beyond the household, the competition for water as a productive resource is intensifying.
Symptoms of that competition include the collapse of water-based ecological systems, declining river flows and large-scale groundwater depletion. Conflicts over water, particularly the issue of control over fresh water sources, are intensifying within countries ~ posing a serious threat to world peace. The Middle East and North Africa are contending with water conflicts. In the Jordan river basin, there is intense competition among Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank for control over the available water resource. Israel uses the largest volume of water available in the basin, and next in line is Jordan. The Israeli-occupied West Bank uses the minimum amount ~ a true reflection of the power equation in the Middle East.
The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of International Rivers, adopted by the International Law Association in 1966 and similar other customary international laws have tried to provide the necessary legal framework for solving the water-sharing disputes concerning trans-boundary rivers. But most of these conflicts seem intractable.
Even if one accepts the claim made by the USA and its allies that the 2011 ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya was driven by the altruistic zeal of these self-styled protectors of human rights to deliver the people of Libya from the oppressive yoke of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, there is no gainsaying that the regime change has, conveniently, given them a scope to control not only Libya’s rich reserve of oil but also, more interestingly, its huge reserve of underground water.
In 1953, the search for oil led to the discovery of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), the world’s largest known fossil water aquifer system. It is located underground in the eastern end of the Sahara desert and spans the political boundaries of four countries in north-east Africa-Sudan, Chad, Libya and Egypt. Experts suggest that if used in a controlled manner, it can be a source of water for Africa for the next 1000 years. In 1983, Gaddafi started the Great Manmade River Project, as part of which, water extracted from the aquifer, through a network of pipelines, was diverted to faraway places to give a boost to agriculture. The consequent prosperity made Gaddafi more arrogant or construed differently, more oblivious to the dictates of the West. This perhaps served as a powerful motivation for the West to come down heavily on Libya. Critics have drawn uncharitable conclusions from the fact that during the 2011 war, one of the plants manufacturing pipes for the project was destroyed by a NATO air strike.
In South Asia as well, water is a contentious issue in inter-state relations. For India, the sharing of trans-border rivers is a point of discord between Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. India, with 16 per cent of the world’s population, has only 4 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources.
In India, the per capita availability of fresh water has dropped from 5,177 cubic meters in 1951 to 1,820 cubic meters in 2001. Spatial and temporal variability in the availability of rain water, the main source of river waters, is a serious challenge. The monsoon rain is available for three months; there is an acute water shortage during the arid months in large parts of the country. In the past, the Cauvery river water dispute and the imbroglio over sharing the Krishna water have not only soured inter-state relations, but have also fuelled parochial sentiment, even riots and arson.
The policy of constructing large dams has been opposed because of the huge damage in terms of ecology and human life. The proposed interlinking of rivers has run into rough weather for similar reasons. Such alternatives as rain water harvesting call for extensive community-based projects. The cost factor can also be prohibitive.
Water, essential for human existence, cannot be treated as a commodity accessible to only those who can pay for it. It is a basic right. Hence, while supporting the cause of collecting taxes from those who can afford to pay the cess, the government must fulfil this basic requirement of the underprivileged by setting up public funded facilities. The needs of the common people and the developmental needs of society should be delicately balanced. The human race must be saved from a possible apocalypse through judicious use and conservation of life’s essential.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata