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What to do about the global water crisis

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-06

GURGAON (India) - Like many Indians who travel to the United States for higher studies, Mr Sunil Ghorawat obtained a comfortable job after acquiring a master's degree in business administration from Case Western University. He became part of the water business, a global US$400 billion industry that's growing rapidly because of the increasing need for clean water in industrial and Third World countries alike.

One of his assignments brought him back to his native country a couple of years ago. Mr Ghorawat was dismayed to find that the water situation was completely chaotic. Eight federal government ministries were entrusted to dealing with drinking and waste water, their rivalries and incompetence resulting in a situation where more than 600 million people - more than half of India's population of 1.1 billion - had no access to safe potable water.

He also found that 90 percent of patients in Indian hospitals suffered from water-borne diseases such as severe diarrhea - and that such diseases claimed 2,000 lives daily, deaths that were entirely preventable through controlling the 13 billion litres of industrial effluent and 23 billion litres of domestic waste water that daily polluted India's diminishing water supply.

"It was - and continues to be - a real horror show," the 35-year Mr Ghorawat, who stayed on in India to start his own enterprise, Everything About Water, said. "The government needs not only to be a better enforcement mechanism for existing anti-pollution laws, but also work better in tandem with the private sector to improve water supply. But it's not happening."

It isn't happening in much of the Third World, too. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3 billion people, almost half of the current global population of 6.1 billion, lack access to sanitation as a result off water shortages. Most are in Africa and Asia. Another 2 billion people depend on groundwater worldwide but especially in countries with rapidly depleting groundwater resources such as India, China, West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the former Soviet Union and the western United States.

In all, 80 countries - half the number in the world - are experiencing serious water problems, or what's known as "water stress," which occurs when water consumption exceeds 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources. In another 20 years, two-thirds of the world's population will be living under water stressed conditions because of a 40 percent increase in global water use.

While traditional inefficiencies might explain poor governmental performance in providing clean water, controlling contamination of groundwater and enforcing anti-pollution laws, the private sector in India and elsewhere is beset by a different set of problems.

One problem is that of fragmentation in the industry. Former giants like France's Vivendi are getting out of the water business because of poor management and over-diversification into other industries not related to water. While private companies now operate in 75 countries - up from barely a dozen just a decade ago - their competition often results in overlap. Still, the water business is so lucrative - in India alone, the annual US$4 billion industry is growing at the rate of 15 percent - that multinational companies such as the U.S.'s General Electric and Germany's Siemens are entering the field.

Another problem is that of lack of coordination between private companies, local governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In India, for example, NGOs and local governments receive nearly US$1 billion each year from American and European foundations and governments to create an infrastructure for providing water in rural areas. But corruption and neglect are so pervasive that the country's water problems are increasing by the year.

"Our policymakers haven't understood the concept of sustainable development," says Dr. Kamal Chenoy, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "So they don't take issues like the environment very serious."

Politicians, Professor Chenoy adds, much rather prefer mega projects such as dams "because there's so much money in it for them, and for their favored contractors."

One such mega project that's in the works is the linking of India's major rivers, with a massive grid of canals that would provide better irrigation as well as potable water.

"Again, this is a top-down approach that our policymakers favour," Professor Chenoy said. "There's little thought given to matters such as rural dislocation, and water overruns."

There's also the question of intra-regional conflict over water resources. For example, the southern state of Karnataka refused to channel water from the Cauvery River to neighbouring Tamil Nadu because of political differences among state leaders. It finally did so only after there was overflooding in the Cauvery. Similarly, the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are locked in a bitter dispute over linking the Sutlej and Jamuna Rivers.

Like India, most of the Third World's 135 countries need sound national water policies that clearly define the roles of local governments, private companies and civil society organizations. There needs to be stricter enforcement of anti-pollution laws, many of them enacted in the 1990s when the world became more aware of water shortages.

There also needs to be more resources allocated by the private sector to developing cheaper technologies for finding and pumping water, but also for purifying it and conserving groundwater. Simple devices such as catchments for rainwater need to be installed more widely, especially in rural regions. It's ironic that in Cheerapunji, in India's easternmost part, the annual rainfall is the highest in the world - yet the area suffers from a shortage of drinking water because of the lack of proper catchments.

Some of these issues are likely to come up starting today (Tuesday) in Singapore when a global exhibition on pumps and water-related instruments opens, and in a series of conferences organized by Mr Ghorawat's company in Hyderabad and Mumbai later this year.

But there's also likely to be lament that the private sector in many developing countries continues to be distrusted when it comes to providing something as basic as clean water. Of course, political distrust is often quickly overcome by the surreptitious handover of emoluments. That doesn't help the common man, however. And, least of all, such arrangements hardly alleviate the critical problem of water shortages.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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