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Conservation only way to prevent water wars Dawn, By F.H. Mughal


The world is fast running out of fresh water, also called blue gold, and there is a growing consensus among experts that its continuing scarcity will lead to disputes and wars between nations, provinces and upstream-downstream users. A number of river basins around the world are already a source of tension between countries which jointly share their resources.

According to the UN Environment Programme, at present 261 river basins are shared by two or more countries. Disputes between India and Bangladesh over the Ganges, India and Pakistan over the Indus, Thailand and Vietnam over the Mekong and the United States and Mexico over the Colorado are some of the examples that can reach flash points.

Middle East's water crises are now a legend. Most countries in the region rely heavily on irrigation. The present water availability is critical. This makes water a key issue in Middle East politics. Many leaders have spoken of wars over water.

Jordan, Israel and the occupied West Bank share the waters of the Jordan River. Increasing water demands have led to tension in the region. Late King Hussein of Jordan declared in 1990 that water was the only issue that could take him to war with Israel.

The Nile River, the world's longest river, is shared by nine countries. Egypt is the last in the line. In 1989, the then Egypt's minister of state for foreign affairs, said: "The national security of Egypt is in the hands of eight other African countries in the Nile Basin." Current research indicates that the cause of a conflict between nations tends to centre on water quantity and infrastructure issues.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Global Environment Outlook 3, 2002, the total volume of water on earth is about 1,400 million cubic kms, of which only 2.5 per cent or about 35 million cubic km is freshwater.

Most freshwater is locked up in glaciers, or in deep groundwater aquifers. The usable portion is only about 200,000 cubic km of water. This is less than one per cent of all freshwater and only 0.01 per cent of all water on earth.

Globally, 1.4 billion people do not have enough drinking water. The phenomenal rise in population has not been matched by an equally high rise in the quantity of water. Still, the consumption of freshwater is multiplying on an unequal basis.

Key users of water in almost all the countries are industries and agriculture sectors and a continuing rise in their demand is contributing to a scarcity in other sectors. Hence, about one-third of the world's population lives in countries suffering from moderate-to-high water stress and where water consumption is more than 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources. It is estimated that, in less than 25 years, two-thirds of the world's people will be living in water-stressed countries.

But instead of persuading the people to change the way they live, governments of the world's rich countries prefer grandiose projects. Multinationals are rushing to appropriate groundwater resources but they are meeting resistance from civil society.

However, major global companies are determined to overcome these challenges and control water resources. The first large-scale water projects they constructed were in cities such as Paris, Marseille, Athens, Helsinki, Algiers, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles by moving huge quantities of water from basins elsewhere.

In Pakistan, availability of water is on decrease. The average water flows in Indus basin system is about 171.5 cubic kilometers per year and around 18.5 cubic kms is lost due to evaporation and transmission. About 37 cubic km/year is required to be released downstream of Kotri barrage, to check sea intrusion, maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems and economic conditions of the people.

Thus, a net quantity of 130 cubic kms is available for use every year but in practical terms the water availability is much less. In fact, downstream users are facing perpetual water crisis, most of the time, in a year, barring the wet season.

A 2003 IUCN study indicates that the economic losses in lower Sindh - in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors - over a period of five years (1998-2002) have been of the order of Rs. 573 million.

The water requirements in Pakistan in 2013 and 2025 are estimated to be 266 cubic kms and 342 cubic kms, respectively. The Indus River is fed by Himalayan glaciers, which contribute about 90 per cent of the water in the river. But the glaciers are now thinning and receding.

Their melting, which may create a water crisis in 20 years' time, is attributed to the climate change phenomenon which has led to global warming. The first impact of the melting will be that of floods, to be followed by severe drought conditions as there will be almost no source to feed the Indus River. Hence, the crises can be managed, if not averted, only by conserving water and also preventing its waste.

In 1996, a detailed study on how water conservation measures can save much of water was conducted in the US. The average water consumption at the time was 274.5 liters/person per day.

Water conservation techniques (low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators, leak repair and horizontal axis clothes washers) were instituted. The results showed that water consumption came down to 187.8 liters/person per day. In other words, the water savings were 86.6 liters/person per day, that is, nearly 32 per cent reduction in the use of water.

Water conservation has a beneficial impact on the environment as well. In fact, efficient use of water helps to protect the environment by conserving water resources and natural water habitats.

Leaving more water in streams, rivers and lakes, means that more water would be available for other uses. This also protects groundwater, saline water intrusion and wetlands, where abundant water quantity keeps the ecosystem healthy and thriving.

Water conservation helps in reducing the consumption of energy and production of wastewater. Conserving energy means reduced air emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and other production wastes, such as coal ash, boiler slag and emission control dust.

Conserving energy also contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, which cause acid rain (carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, respectively) - US EPA (1999).

Over 20 per cent of the approximately 10,000 freshwater fish species in the world are either endangered or have already gone extinct because their habitats are being threatened.

If per capita consumption of water resources continues to rise at current rate, then humankind could be using over 90 per cent of all available freshwater within 25 years, leaving just 10 per cent for the rest of the world's species.

Another aspect is the environmental health. While, it is commonly known that the quality of water for drinking purposes, should be wholesome and should meet the WHO guidelines, most people would not know that many diseases are dependent on the "quantity" of water rather than the "quality" of water.

Called "water-washed diseases," a supply of adequate quantity of water is required to prevent the occurrence of these diseases. For example, skin, eye and intestinal tract infections can be reduced by improving domestic and personal hygiene.

A look at the availability, supply and demand of drinking water in Karachi during the last three decades shows that most people have yet to be convinced about the need for conserving water, let alone be aware of the measures do so. Water is considered a free and infinite commodity in this mega-city.

The unaccounted for water is of the order of 30 per cent of the total supply. In Singapore, such water is less than five per cent. To have a glimpse of the water wastage in Karachi, one has only to visit some of the better areas in the morning hours and see how people wash their cars and water their lawns. And there is a crisis of water every day in most of the low-income localities of the city.