Vol. 4 Num 52 Fri. July 18, 2003  

Water hazard hits the millennium goal
Even after the passage of 30 years since the first Summit on World Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972 charting out the first symptoms of ecological crisis the world has hardly made any headway to halt or slowdown the destruction of global environment. And the result has been catastrophic. This year's theme for the World Environment Day: "Water -- two billion people are dying for it" has awakened the conscious citizenry to look for specific solutions to meet the millennium goal. In the backdrop of critical shortage of water in Asia and Africa, the goal is to inspire political and community action and encourage greater global understanding of the need for more responsible water use and conservation.

The problem of water pollution is causing indisputable harm in poor countries. Because populations in poor countries are growing so fast that improvements on water supply have failed to keep up with the growing number of people. Worldwide two billion people still have no access to clean water and water contaminated by sewage is estimated to kill 3.4 million including two million children every year.

Water experts have sounded alarm that within next 25 years, half of the world's population could have profound trouble in finding enough fresh water for drinking and irrigation. Currently, as reports reveal, at least 80 countries representing 40 per cent of world's population, are subject to serious water shortages. Condition may get worse in the years to come as population grows and as global warming disrupts rainfall patterns.

Believably, West Asia faces the greatest threat. Over 90 per cent of the region's population is experiencing severe water stress with water consumption exceeding 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources. Precisely speaking, human water consumption rose six fold in the past century, double the rate of population growth. People now use 54 per cent of the available fresh water and additional demand will further jeopardise all other ecosystems. That only indicates that water scarcity may soon limit economic development, particularly in parts of China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan where supplies are already inadequate to meet the needs of agriculture and industry. Added to this is the problem of pollution caused by fertilizers, silts, sewage and other toxic effluents that have killed lakes and poisoned rivers.

The crisis did not end there. Half of the world's wetlands have been drowned through conversion, diversion and fragmentation of the system resulting into destruction of habitat. Insanitary water which provides a breeding ground for parasites, amoebas and bacteria damages the health of 1.2 billion people a year. Water borne diseases are responsible for 80 per cent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world, killing a child every eight seconds. Almost 60 per cent of the world's population lives within 60 kms of the coast lines. Disease and death related to polluted coastal waters alone cost the global economy US$ 16 billion a year.

Much of the woes and suffering to people stemming from water crisis in many parts of the world, it is now believed, has come out of dam building mentality of the developed nations. The first of the world's great dams, Hoover, built over Colorado river to support bustling modern Los Angeles inaugurated an age of dams that spanned three quarters of the last century. The dam building mentality, however, has pretty much expired in the developed world, especially in the US, -- one reason is they have run out of dam sites -- but it is still prevalent through much of the world. In China which is erecting the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric project in history and at $ 25 billion the most expensive one in the world, one senses outright resentment against rivers running free.

True, almost everyone appreciates how water projects have altered the course of civilization in ways we call (perhaps foolishly) benign. Dams and reservoirs permit unimaginable numbers of people to inhabit forbiddingly arid regions -- as well as flood plains where cities would be washed away without upstream protection. Dams produce more clean energy than nuclear reactors. Irrigation agriculture, largely dependent on reservoirs, grows 40 per cent of the world's food on a much smaller fraction of its farmland. Ironically true, we are now beginning to understand how water development projects, amounted to a Faustian bargain between civilization and the natural world which, as it happens, supports civilization. For example, reports have it that hydroelectricity from Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state smelted enough aluminium during world war II to build tens of thousands of warplanes with enough surplus power to make plutonium for the first atom bombs. But in the form of devastated salmon fisheries and lost farmland, worth billions of dollars Grand Coulee, along with countless other dams, is extracting an awful price for its creation.

Undoubtedly true, nature can take some blame for the tribulations of river life in China, India and Bangladesh. As for China, the devastation wrought upon over the years owes much to the policies of its great leader, Mao Zedong. Mao ordered Peasant communities to "plant grain everywhere". In the 1950s, work brigades drained the lakes along the Yangtze and its tributaries and seeded them with crops. Families settled on flood plains. The enormous Dongting lake once a catch basin during the years the Yangtze swelled was now half the size it was when Chairman Mao came to power in 1949. And the results were predictably disastrous. The surrounding countryside lost its ability to absorb water from the Yangtze as it flowed from the Tibetan plateu downwards. To ward off the crisis, even when the government tried to build dikes and sluices, as the ultimate solution, such attempts have been of very little help. The Three Gorges Dam is now under construction upriver in Sichuan province. Yet even that grand ambition turning the upper Yangtze into the world's greatest reservoir probably won't stop downstream flooding. Water shortage in India caused water hazard in Bangladesh, its lower riparian country. As for instance, India receives an annual precipitation of around 4000 bcm (billion cubic metre) including rain and snowfall. Of this the runoff -- accessible water -- is 1869 bcm of which barely 690 bcm is used. Nearly 1179 bcm water is drained into the sea. Not only water is drained into the sea, along with it are transported silts and sediment that eventually raises the riverbed causing the rivers to overflow its banks. This ultimately means watery death to humans, animals and total destruction of farm crops.

In most parts of the world including India and Bangladesh pipelines are there but these often turn dry because the crux of the problem -- supply has not been addressed. Most cities and towns are not based on riverbanks and the rapid pace of urbanisation has led to the drying up of the traditional water sources like tanks and lakes. With water sources shrinking day by day and population pressure increasing water stress has become visible. Most municipalities and corporations especially in the towns and cities have gone for the immediate, tapping ground water resources. In the countryside, as well, to meet the drought like situation and to pursue agricultural activities, people have joined the rush to bore wells. Expectedly, the pressure on groundwater has shown up. Tubewells are now routinely dug at higher and higher depths.

Against the backdrop of severe water crisis hitting almost two thirds of the global population, Bangladesh, once considered a country of abundant water resources or otherwise known as a country of rivers, haors and baors -- is now facing an acute water crisis and also seasonal flooding. This is due to several factors: Rivers and lakes are drying up due to siltation, most rivers have changed their original course because of obstruction raised here and there with unplanned dikes and sluices, no new tanks, lakes and reservoirs in any part of Bangladesh have been excavated during the last one century and lastly the river water has been dangerously polluted. Because of careless and senseless human activities, rivers now contain many bacteria from human waste and other harmful effluents thrown in the rivers. Noticeably, an estimated 90 per cent of sewage in our part of the world is discharged into rivers, lakes and seas without any treatment. To make things worse as already mentioned supplies of fresh water that might dilute the sewage are dwindling in many areas. Almost 90 per cent of the populations of Bangladesh has now become victim of river pollution. Cities, towns and villages stand by the river, but the population cannot use river water for indiscriminate disposal of pollutants there. Most shocking, even if the alarm bells are ringing governments in Asian countries and the public in general are apathetic to the problem.

The emerging water crisis shortage and flooding -- especially in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan in the Asia region other than Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most worrying problem for the new millennium. To achieve the 2015 targets for freshwater provision, water supplies will have to reach an additional 1.5 billion people in these regions. But water problems, as experts indicate, are more related to mismanagement than scarcity. Upto 50 percent of urban water and 60 percent of water used in agriculture is wasted through leaks and evaporation. Besides, logging and land conversion to accommodate human demand has shrunk the world's forests by half contributing to increased erosion and water scarcity. Between 300 and 400 million people worldwide live close to and depend on wetlands. Strikingly, wetlands act as highly efficient sewage treatment works, absorbing chemicals and filtering pollutants and sediments. Paradoxically, urban and industrial development has claimed half the world's wetlands. Undeniably true, sustainable development and poverty alleviation will only be achieved through better management of and investment in rivers and wetlands.

For a country like Bangladesh that wants to achieve 5 plus percent GDP growth and where 80 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture, investment in rural infrastructure has been pitiful. Besides the management of water supply, there is an increasing need for technology to increase efficiency. This water-starved region must shift from the concept of yield per acre to yield per cubic metre of water, emphasizing equally on the need to adopt micro and drip irrigation methods practised in many water scarce countries of the world. As urban demands for water increase, supply for the developing world's already water-starved agricultural areas will be further affected thereby creating a potentially monumental food security crisis.

Md Asadullah Khan, a former teacher of physics, is Controller of Examinations, BUET.