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Peak Water: The fracturing of the carrying capacity of clean water

February 7, 2012
Sensible Development

A hydropower development project in SA

It is believed that 70% of earth’s surface is made of water, however less than only 1% of it is fresh and available for potable use for humans. The development in the recent times has caused an adverse shift in the availability of this once abundant resource.

The freshwater supply in the rivers is dwindling and whatever is available is not free from all imaginable contaminants.

Four of the world’s greatest rivers, the Colorado in the U.S., the Nile in Egypt, the Yellow River in China and the Ganges (Ganga) in India often no longer reach the sea in some reaches. They have been so depleted along their banks by the impacts of rapid 

  • Urban development/cities,
  • Agriculture management/farms,
  • Industrial growth/factories and
  • Hydropower development/dams

Growth Dilemma in India  

The mighty river Ganga in twilight

The Ganges (Ganga) river, which runs 2525 kilometers from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, is iconic sacred and the largest river system in India. Covering 26% of the land surface of India, it supports 43% of the population, making it a critical freshwater system in the development of Indian economy.

The Ganga basin has a cultivatable area of about 58.0 million hectares, which is about 30% of the total cultivatable area of the country. While this has brought prosperity to some, it has also resulted in the over abstraction of water, particularly in the stretch from its origin to the holy city of Varanasi. There are now increasing constraints on the availability of water to meet growing industrial and urban demands.

Growth in the leather city of Kanpur in India, which depends on Ganga river water, supplied by a canal system as well the river directly, has been stunted not only by the quality of the water in the river but also by the non-availability of water for the tanneries. This has worsened for the farmers in the wake of climate change as lesser water is available for farming by each passing year to get a substantial produce.

Simply put, there’s no more available water to be taken.

No groundwater available now:

The area of doab (the land between the two rivers Ganga and Yamuna) in the Uttar Pradesh state of India was considered to be water rich and the seat of the green revolution. The productivity was achieved by exploiting the groundwater through the traditional rainwater harvesting structures such as talabs and johads (ponds and tanks) and also by the mechanized tube-wells through extraction.

The result of over extraction as seen today is that the entire region is parched and the agricultural land is mostly saline or lies barren due to the non-availability of any groundwater or soil moisture.

 The water availability has way past its carrying capacity and its now bursting its seams to cope up with the ever increasing population and the developmental activities in India.

In the US

The environment in the US is considerably safe and protected, thanks to the tireless efforts of the various government agencies as well as the environmental action groups here.

However, the latest release by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December of its updated recommendations for recreational water quality leaves much to be desired.

Recreational activities in the river

Riverwater Rafting







These recommendations help the states to set criteria for bacteria and other pathogens that are protective of public health for beaches where people go swimming or otherwise have direct contact with the water.  However, these have not been revised since their 1998 values.

If that is not all the demand for water used in the extraction process, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will jump 10-fold by 2020, and double again by 2030, said Robert Mace, a deputy executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board. That may be more water than the region’s depleted aquifers and the Rio Grande can supply.

Semiconductor plants, toilets and clothes’ washers have cut their water usage by as much as two-thirds in the past two decades, and industry can do more to reduce its water use.

 Ultimately, just as New England’s early industrialists built their mills along the area’s fast-flowing rivers in the 19th century, today’s businesses will move to where they have the resources they need most.  Who knows when those resources will also be exhausted in the near future?

However, the efforts and initiatives undertaken by the environmental activists and groups  in the country as well as globally force the policy makes to think about development through a sensible approach.

 This is the bright spot in the otherwise gloomy picture.


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