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Deprival of the weakest
India’s water problem will continue to grow to mammoth and daunting proportions unless an integrated approach is taken. PPP is a great model, provided profiteering is curbed successively.

In a recent education tour to Singapore under IIPM GOTA program, we happened to visit an industrial plant of NEWater. NEWater is a joint venture of Singapore’s Public Utilities Board and Ministry of Environment and water resources. What is unique about NEWater is that it not only supplies pure drinking water to its people but also recycles water from the reservoirs of Singapore. This gave us an idea of how the state is committed to provide safe drinking water to its people and to ensure maximum replenishment of water supplies.

When we think of India, it presents a stark and unfortunate contrast. There is an ironic diversity when it comes to the availability of water, leave alone the safe and drinkable part. While hundreds of lives are in danger because of shortage of water in states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, which often experience drought and water scarcity, thousands others die in states like Bihar, Orissa or West Bengal, which are often inundated by flood.

Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 billion people drink unclean water, and about 2.5 billion lack proper toilets or sewerage systems. Over 5 million people die every year from water-born diseases such as cholera. In India too, about 70 million people in 20 states are in danger due to excess fluoride and around 10 million are at risk due to excess arsenic in ground water. In the gross sense (pun intended), about 10% of the population from both urban and rural areas does not have access to regular safe drinking water.

India is not very far from a water crisis, in a world that recognises that water will be just about as important by 2025 as oil is today. Over 85% of the rural population in Indian solely depends on ground water, which is depleting at a faster rate. Though 60% of the population in urban areas depends on the surface water sources, availability and quality are unpredictable. Moreover, population growth is leading to drastic decline in the per capita availability of fresh water. It has gone down to around 2,200m3 in 2000 from 5,150m3 of 1947, and is expected to go down by 2017 to 1600m3 .

In states like Gujarat, the water table is dropping by as high as 6 metres per year. Four decades ago, the water table was at around 30 metres; now it has increased to around 152 meters. The scenario is pretty much the same in Agra. In 1996, groundwater level was 34 metres. Ten years down the line, that dropped to 42 metres. The total cost of environmental damage in India amounts to $9.7 billion annually, as per the World Bank estimate in 1995; of which 59% results from health impacts of water pollution. Also the poor often end up paying 5-10 times more per litre than wealthy people in the same city.

Tackling the situation requires an integrated approach to multiple facets of the water problem. They include tackling the menace of water pollution, ensuring recycling of water through techniques like rainwater harvesting, engaging with the affected population to ensure that their specific needs are well understood, discouraging excesses in terms of water usage and even tackling the class divide that marginalises certain members of the community from access to this invaluable resource. Public private partnerships are the best way out. But a strong regulatory mechanism must also be instituted to ensure greater transparency and discourage profiteering.

By:- Akram Hoque

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