Water availability, access and affordability are acute problems for poor and crisis-vulnerable people, while billions of dollars in profits are extracted from the sector.

Growing up as a child in India, my job was to fetch water for any visitor and for anyone who rang the doorbell demanding a drink. I was also roped into my beloved grandmother’s scheme for hydrating the labourers toiling on neighbourhood roads and buildings under the burning sun. On her passing, it was but natural to establish a public drinking point in her memory. 

That is how I learnt that water is a sacred substance. Not just a human right. The symbolism goes back millennia, with Greek philosophers considering water as basic bodily humour, the imbalance of which causes disease. Major faiths consider water a purifier in blessing ceremonies and in the ritual washing of the dead.

Ancient beliefs that water is a gift of the gods are reflected in geological insight that the Earth acquired most of its water some four billion years ago from meteoroids  bombarding our planet. The rest probably came up from the Earth’s core. Gravity kept the water from being sucked away into space. 

Thus accumulated a planetary stock of around 1.3 million cubic kilometres of water, with each cubic km containing one trillion litres. Although this is an unimaginably large quantity, water is a finite resource. All the water that we were originally endowed with is all that we will ever have. And 96 percent of this is saline oceans, covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface.

68 percent of the remaining water is locked into glaciers and 30 percent is deep underground. We rely on that via a finely-tuned hydrological cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, interception, infiltration, percolation, and transpiration to supply the 1 percent of total earthly water accessible for daily living. 

But temperature rises from climate change is depleting glaciers. Environmental destruction, which has caused the loss of a third of our forests and 85 percent of wetlands, is disrupting the water cycle at an alarming rate. Simultaneously, our growing population, now 8 billion, is digging deeper into underground aquifers at rates faster than their replenishment.

On prevailing trends, a water crunch is inevitable. By 2025, half the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas and by the decade’s end, freshwater demand will outstrip supply. by 40 percent. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which promises safe and affordable drinking water for all, is increasingly out of reach. As water is also crucial to the other 16 SDGs, the broader development impacts are profound.

We have been there before, as civilisations have always prospered or perished around water. The greatest ones arose around the rivers Nile, Indus, Euphrates and Tigris, or unravelled when water ran out, as happened with the 12th century BCE Turkish Hittite, 9th century Maya, 15th century Khmer, or 17th century Ming. These collapses were not sudden but unfolded over centuries with progressive declines punctuated by dramatic disasters and wars. 

Predictions of water conflicts are also current. Ethiopia’s massive Renaissance Dam has stoked tensions with Sudan and Egypt, and terrorism and insecurity accompany a drying Lake Chad. Water scarcity is a driver for population displacement – contributing ten percent of forced migratory flows, which topped 100 million last year. 

Today’s collapses are already underway, the difference with the historical past being that inequities in water access and consequent crises are widespread. More than three-quarters of last year’s 387 major disasters were due to too much or too little water. For example, Pakistan floods affected 33 million people, Bangladesh monsoons 7 million, and the Philippines tropical storms over 3 million. 

Meanwhile, Somalia’s fourth year of drought killed 43,000 people, while 1.2 million urban South Africans faced day zero when taps nearly ran dry. The continent is the most water-stressed, with one in three Africans impacted, including millions who walk more than half an hour to fetch water or expend more than 25 percent of their income to buy it. 

Even then, sufficiency and quality are variable. Water constitutes 60 percent of our body and we must consume 2-4 litres to stay well, depending on activity-level and ambient temperature. The World Health Organization has established drinking water standards, specifying the maximum permitted levels of microbes and chemical pollutants.  

Forty percent of the world’s mass water sources, such as lakes, rivers, and aquifers, do not meet these standards or are not monitored. Meanwhile, 3.5 million people die annually from water-related diseases. Currently, as Malawi reels from a cyclone, it is also enduring a cholera outbreak. 

I remember witnessing 50,000 Rwandans fleeing genocide in 1994 to die instead from cholera in DRC. Despite plenty of water in nearby Lake Kivu, treating and piping water was difficult. A million Rohingya refugees are finding the same today in Bangladesh even as 20million of the host population struggle against the world’s biggest mass poisoning because their water is naturally contaminated with arsenic.  

Despite myriad problems, the world is striving to increase safe water production, and efficient transmission and usage. Rich countries are using de-salination but this is energy-intensive. Meanwhile, 45 million cubic metres are lost daily through broken pipes. As illustration, Spain loses 28 percent of all piped water through leakage. New leak detection technologies like satellites and in-pipe robots are coming. Water storage solutions – harvesting rainwater or storm overflows – are getting common. 

Most fresh water is used in food systems: producing the average person’s daily diet needs 2,000-5,000 litres of water. Farmers are innovating with crops that need less water and drip irrigation. Changing diet makes sense as one kilogram of beef takes 15,000 litres while a kilo of wheat requires 1,500 litres.

Meanwhile, industrial use takes 17 percent of the world’s freshwater. Innovation is hard at work here. It used to take 10,000 litres to make a pair of jeans but this has reduced that to less than 1,000. Efficient recycling is the obvious key as also lifestyle changes that waste less water flushing toilets, bathing – and laundering jeans!

The World Bank estimates that it would cost around $25 billion annually till 2030 to bring safe water to all. At a mere 0.1 percent of global GDP with an economic return of $4 for every dollar invested, this is a no-brainer. 

But will we do that? The political omens are not good. In a world that proliferates  international conferences at the drop of a hat, it has taken 46 years to convene this week’s UN Water Conference in New York, since the previous one in 1977 in Argentina.

Although the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established the right to life and adequate health and well-being, it did not mention water. Perhaps, the drafters  thought it unnecessary to state this obvious condition for life? It took a further six decades till 2010 to recognise water as a basic human right with UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292. But that was only by majority vote, in which 41 important states such as Australia, Japan, UK, and USA abstained. 

Although this was for arcane procedural reasons, it exposed deep divisions over the  status of water as either a common public good or a commodity traded for profit. The privatisation of an originally free gift of nature for the benefit of company shareholders is morally troubling. In contrast, market proponents argue that this is necessary to bring needed investment into the sector and ensure correct pricing for optimising the use of a scarce resource. 

The debate echoes, to some extent, the one on energy in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war or recent arguments over access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Meanwhile, water availability, access and affordability are increasingly acute problems, especially for poor and crisis-vulnerable people, while billions of dollars in profits are extracted from the sector. 

Prevailing fractured geopolitics mean that there is no global water governance and the UN Water Conference’s technically-loaded agenda avoids serious political discussion while making unconvincing appeals for more water aid.

The irony is that while oil is on its way out to be replaced by renewables, water – the ultimate renewable resource – is transforming into the new oil with equally tough attendant problems.

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Source: TRT World