BANGALORE: Is water the next oil?Motives behind the question vary,depending on who asks the question.Those who see water as a future corecommodity – therefore as profitable aprospect as oil – pose the question tocreate the right market conditions forwater trade. Those who see the potentialfor conflict arising from scarcity comparediminishing freshwater to oil’s depletingreserves. Those who see an environmentalthreat from mismanagement of water seeparallels with the abuse and waste of oil.So there are lessons to be learned fromhow we have managed oil on this planetover the past century and more.In search of water: Indian women's daily routine in much ofthe rural areas. Only 2.5 percent of water of the planet isusableThe oil crisis confronting the world today is much like thelooming crisis in water, with depleting supplies, unequaldistribution and access, and the inevitable specter of risingcosts and increasing conflict around the sharing of this vitalnatural resource. As with oil, water exploitation raises aninter-generational debt that will be hard to repay. Theuncontrolled and rapacious exploitation of oil has led tounintended consequences, and if we continue on a similartrajectory with water, the oil crisis will seem like the trailer ofsome horrible disaster movie.Ironically, our untrammeled use of oil fuels the crisis in water. Burning of fossil fuels has led toglobal warming, the melting of glaciers and ice caps, and the early snowmelts that will causeflooding in areas that can hardly bear another burden. And it may also cause the climate tofluctuate in a way that brings too much rain in some places and too little in others.In addition, the move to replace oil with biomass-based fuels will intensify water use, not so muchfor sustaining our life and this planet as tosustain our lifestyles.All this is worth thinking about at theindividual level, because if change reallyhappens, it must begin within the individualconsciousness.The challenges are immense. The first, ofcourse, is that the earth has a finite amountof usable water, despite it being a beautifulblue planet. The 2.5 percent of usable planetwater is in a precarious balance with glaciersand fossil groundwater remaining intact.Another challenge is the inefficiencies andinequities in how water is used. Agricultureconsumes 70 percent of the world’s water, much of it to produce what we eat. There istremendous wastage in our agricultural processes, though the levels are somewhat stable or evenimproving slightly.Demand for domestic water has risen sharply over thecentury, which again brings us back to questioning what we asindividuals can do. The sectoral demand on water isincreasing rapidly within both industry and domestic settings.Competing demand will create pressure on the agriculturesector, perhaps leading water-scarce regions to produce lessfood and outsource food production to water-rich countries,spurring concerns about the food security of individual nation states.Freshwater Resources Per Capita Enlarge imagePoverty, power and inequality are at the core of the water issue and not scarcity, as the UNDevelopment Programme Human Development Report 2006 powerfully argues.And herein lies the rub. Since we have taken water for granted, we must face the alarminginequality in safe water. More than 1.5 billion people lack access to adequate water and sanitation.If poverty is bad, then poverty without water is hell on earth. Recently, the millenniumdevelopment goals have supplied a normative framework for governments to prioritize how wateris delivered. Still, not enough money or resources flow into this sector. Worldwide, only 5 percentof all international aid goes into water and sanitation. We are still far from universal access togood water for life. And this inequity instigates the raging debate around water today.Another critical problem for the water sector is wastewater and pollution of our ponds, streams,lakes and rivers. No one can estimate the costs to clean our water resources and how much of thedamage is irreversible.So maybe it is time to apply the lessons learned from the management of another natural resource– oil.It’s safe to say that, with oil, among other mistakes, we haveseen overuse; gross inequity in benefit sharing, across bothgeography and time, of what is essentially a commonproperty; poor environmental management; an overarchingsupply-side focus; the use of technology to speedunsustainable extraction; and the lack of effective globalgovernance.For water, therefore, we need to focus on demandmanagement and universal access, affordable pricing, pollution control and source sustainability.We need to use technology not to extract water more efficiently from the bowels of the earth, butto replace the use of water with other means where we can, especially to reverse our use offreshwater to carry human waste. And we need urgently to set up more appropriate platforms fornegotiation and regulation that are truly participatory across the globe.These steps are much easier written about than done. So where should one begin?Already some work is underway to restore good practices or generate new ones: One example isthat of reversing the practice of using water to flush and carry human waste. European cities suchas Oslo have introduced vacuum-flush toilet systems that use little or no water. Gaining ground inSouth Asia is eco-sanitation, which provides a viable alternative to water-borne sewage and alsoconverts human waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer.For source sustainability, New York City has made a creative breakthrough by supporting thepreservation of forests in the watersheds of the Catskill Mountains, after finding it more costeffectiveto preserve the watersheds that supply the metro’s drinking water than to build costlytreatment and source-augmentation plants.Demand management is perhaps the trickiest issue of all. How do we convince ourselves to usemuch less water?Perhaps the urban consumer is the key to solving some of the problems. Urbanites are removedfrom the natural world, and urban demand fuels new and unsustainable uses of water. And yet,the urbanite is arguably more integrated with the global economy and increasingly understandsits pitfalls. If there is to be a change in human consciousness, the urban mind is fertile ground.We must focus quickly on making the invisible visible. Much of our incompetence stems from alack of awareness. We need to reduce the knowledge gaps if water consumers are to make morevirtuous choices about products and lifestyles that abusewater.But if such inquiry is to deliver creative solutions, then peoplemust internalize the locus of control. They must seethemselves as not only part of the problem but also part of thesolution. As a Chinese proverb says, “Tell me, I forget. Showme, I remember. Involve me, I understand.”Among the most important lessons to be taken from thehistory of oil is not taking essentials for granted. Conserve oil, but also conserve water. If ourHummers are a red flag in oil, maybe our Jacuzzis are the same for water. A new universal waterethic could eliminate our lethal bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption.Can the water crisis be prevented from becoming a catastrophe? Can we all change the way wethink of water? Now that we know every drop counts, can we count every drop? We will soon findout. And it will be bitter irony if our freshwater reserves are depleted before our oil wells have rundry.Rohini Nilekani is chairperson of Arghyam, a charitable foundation that supports a safe andsustainable global water supply.
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