Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Last Piece of the Puddle

By Kazim Ibn Sadique

Thanks to Star Movies and HBO, most of us have already seen the movie Waterworld. Kevin Costner may not be an A-list actor, but the Indian movie channels sure do love him. The reason we are mentioning the movie is because it portrays a situation we often overlook. In the movie, the world is sunk beneath the waters by an apocalyptic rise in sea-levels and the survivors live on floating islands. But for a people surrounded by an endless mass of water, one of their most precious commodities is Hydro, fresh water.

As a flood-prone country, we all suffer that same dilemma. One can't drink flood water without causing some serious health problems. A man shipwrecked at sea will either die of thirst, or give in and drink seawater and die vomiting blood. Three-quarters of our planet is liquid water and yet, we have the very real problem of water scarcity.

What is it?
Let us break down the water supply of the world for you. 97% of the world's water is sea water. Of the remaining 3%, two-thirds of it is frozen, either at the arctic or in glaciers. So we basically have 1% of the entire water mass as a supply of fresh water. Don't get us wrong, that's still a pretty big chunk of pie. The problem is, it might not be enough anymore. Why? Because in principle, we are no better than locusts. In fact, we are worse.

You see, locusts swarm on a place, eat everything and then move somewhere else, giving the affected area some time to recover before they come around again. We don't. We settle, reproduce and then expand again. With the population of the world increasing at the current rate, we are looking at something more than eight billion people by the time we hit 2050.

Those of you who remember your science classes will know that nature is kind enough to automatically recycle our water. But the basic supply of water stays the same. As population rises, the demand for water rises. Hence, water scarcity.

How bad is it?
Well, it's pretty bad. At the moment, we have 1.1 billion people without clean drinking water. They do what they have to do: drink unsafe water. That includes places that Meena told us not to drink from. Couple that with the fact that 2.6 billion people don't have decent sanitation, or even the water for it, and it comes as no surprise that 1.8 million people die every year from diarrhoea-type diseases, most of them children.

It's not just drinking water that is the problem. Fresh water is needed to grow crops and feed cattle. According to a study, we need 1400 litres of water to produce one kg of rice and dish out 13000 litres for one kg of beef. What's interesting is that potatoes are finally stepping up to the plate to claim their rightful place as the hero of mankind: one kg of potato needs only 100 litres of water.

Is it worse than oil?
Technically, no. It will take a long time to replenish the Earth's store of fossil fuels. We have almost finished a resource that has been accumulating for 670 million years. And we started using fossil fuels about 200 years ago. Compare that with water, which is constantly being recycled and replenished. We should be alright unless we start messing up our overall environment and disrupt the natural routine. Oh wait, we already are.

There are two types of scarcity, physical and economic. Physical scarcity refers to when things actually run out, like oil and natural gas eventually will. Economic scarcity refers to the perception of unavailability. The guy who is living in Sub-Saharan Africa on 20 litres of water every day, won't bother if it becomes 15 litres.

He will just make do. But someone who is living in North America or Japan on 350 litres a day won't like getting only 100 litres. The possibility of protests and eventual riots are quite high. This disparity of distribution is present in Bangladesh as well. We've all seen the plights and dissent of people spending hours in line for a bucketful of water on the news.

Will it cause a World War?
This is more of a glass half full - half empty situation. If you are an alarmist, you could point to the conflict in Darfur and Rwanda which have already been linked to the changing environment and water crisis by the UN. And you would be right in doing so.

Us humans can be infuriatingly stupid sometimes and we have a history of conflict over water. From the campaigns of Alexander, down to the desert warfare of WWII in Africa, water sources have played a vital role. There is still tension in the Middle East over the distribution of the water of Tigris and Euphrates, as well as other rivers. The gigantic Aral Sea of Kazakhstan, one of the largest lakes of the world with an area of roughly 68000km2, is now only 10% of its original size due to Russian river diversions for irrigation purposes. The Farakka Barrage and the resulting environmental crisis still rankle in our hearts.

But if you are an optimist, you might look towards the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan that has survived despite the tension between the two countries. You might hope for technological advancements that will allow us to extract water from the sea in an economically viable process. But in a world of petty squabbles and of resources that will be deemed physically scarce before very long, this “renewable resource” will take the backseat. For now, at least.

Reference: various local newspapers, www.worldwatercouncil.org, www.water.org, wikipedia, NY Times.



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