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One water: numerous facets

July 28, 2014
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”-Loren Eiseley -anthropologist and author of The Immense Journey

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”-Loren Eiseley -anthropologist and author of The Immense Journey

Reading about the various issues around water makes one wonder time and again that how one vital resource can provide so many issues to ponder upon.

These issues range from

  • Imagining a world without water,
  • Municipal/city officials usage and management of water,
  • Payment for the ecosystems services (PES) for water
  • Economy of recent loss of the freshwater wetlands worldwide and last but not the least
  • Estimated losses due to the extreme events in the recent past.

Water is the driver of life and with the increasing pace of urbanization and extreme events around the globe, this limited resource is becoming more and more critical. We observed this effect getting magnified in the places like Africa and Asia and developed nations are also not left out.

In Asia, residents in high tech cities like Pune and Bangalore to tier II cities like Meerut  in India, struggle with the issues related to quality, quantity and availability owning to the lack of governance and maintenance of utilities. We live in a time when we must understand the environmental and demographic trends that increase our vulnerability to water and natural resources related issues. High population densities in vulnerable coastal, urban areas and degraded coastal forests and mangroves leave more people exposed to the brunt of water related crisis. Even in developed nations such as the US, states and regions are suffering from severe drought, California being the latest example.

Three key trends that continue to drive global water insecurity in 2014:

  • Governance: One observes that cities in south and south east Asia experience a different kind of wave of water and electricity availability just around the elections. There is incessant supply of water and electricity until the furor around the elections is settled. We observed this trend from India up to Indonesia where problematic governance issues result in once again not benefitting the most vulnerable and poorest but only a handful of the politically empowered and master of working around the processes and procedures. Water the critical resource is not left out in this equation.
  • Population dynamics: The world is projected to add another 82 million people this year, 24 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where total fertility rates continue to outpace the rest of the world. In parts of the Middle East and Asia, changing age structures and ethno-religious demographic shifts will affect the potential for conflict and thus the ability of communities to respond to shocks, both natural and manmade. Here people living in places below sea level, in delta regions (India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand  and others) are the worst effected in times of crisis. In the ganges river delta where the threat of entire landmass getting submerged, a few stand alone/secluded/individual efforts can do only so much to decrease this vulnerability.
  • Climate change impacts: We will continue to experience climate change-related shocks, including quick hits – floods, disease outbreaks, and food price increases – and drought, food price volatility, and environmental degradation. The impacts of these shocks on the poorest and most vulnerable will increase both in intensity and frequency. This year more attention should be paid on how the vulnerability of water resources to climate change can be reduced.
  • The food-water-energy nexus: Today, one in eight people in the world suffer from chronic hunger, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five are undernourished. About 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity. The interconnected global economy means the effects of complex crises will ripple around the world. This nexus is even more evident in places like Asia/India, where people rely on electricity for water supply and food production/agriculture in a major way.

What can be done to make water crisis a thing of the past?

  • Technology is key: We must link innovations in governance, and couple them with the social trends – such as urbanization, educational transformations, and demographic shifts. This might increase our vulnerability but also provide opportunities for solutions. In time we will see new social technologies that will allow us to leapfrog traditional barriers and deepen community strength through effective governance and communications, participatory decision-making, and responsive water resource management. These technological innovations, however, must be accompanied by sincere efforts to build trust and support networks within and across communities especially the poor and vulnerable ones to form a strong foundation.
  • Flexibility is essential: Bureaucratic “stovepipes” plague many of the organizations tasked with preparing for and responding to these all-encompassing crises. We must create more flexible and creative modes of analysis and streams of funding. Greater coordination across humanitarian assistance and development programs, including better and more streamlined coordination among first responders, including the private sector is needed. As observed above power cuts and water shortages are frequent, even in established cities, so the evidence is mounting that critical ecological limits have been passed a long time ago. Effective coordination between the various government departments and utility providers is quintessential for ensuring a water secure future.
  • Acknowledging the grassroots and community efforts: In developing regions of the world like the global south/Asia, traditional knowledge housed within indigenous communities surpasses the technical advancements at times. Also a lot of these crisis are political and not technological. Acknowledging the community based organizations and grassroots movements towards water crisis management will further help reduce the vulnerability during droughts as well as floods.

For water security, we need a clear path in the face of climate change, population growth, political instability, ineffective governance, departmental silos and increased energy and electricity demands. We need to link our technology to emerging social trends, be flexible when designing research and funding programs, defining processes and procedures and improving basic accessibility for the poor and underserved. Without this a narrowed down vision will make our task for achieving a water secure future for all only uphill.

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