Water & Energy
N. R. Krishnan
Two environmental concerns that need mankind's immediate
attention are dwindling per capita availability of freshwater and global climate
change brought about by use of fossil fuels like coal and oil for meeting energy
needs. The first has already emerged as a serious problem in many parts of the
world, notably Asia, and the second is making its impact felt through global
warming, melting of glaciers and polar ice-caps and erratic weather patterns.
It is not infrequent to hear these days of water disputes
between countries and between regions in the same country. Statesmen have gone
to the extent of prophesying 'water wars' in this century, such being the
gravity of the problem. The reasons for this situation are not far to seek.
Freshwater accounts for just 3% of total global water resources of 160 million
cubic meters and much of this freshwater is not accessible as it is bound up in
ice and snow. Only a very small proportion (0.015%) of global freshwater is
available for man's needs. The geographical distribution of accessible
freshwater is highly skewed with a major portion of it contained in the Great
Lakes bordering the USA
Among the continents, Asia has the lowest annual per capita
availability of 3000 M³ of freshwater. The corresponding figure for India is
1200 M³ and this is expected to go down to 720 M³ in the next 10 to 15 years.
Thus, many parts of India will soon slide to the water stress threshold of 1000
M³ per capita per annum in the next few years.
Experts estimate that of the 400 million hectare meters (m.ha.m)
of India's annual rainfall, 50% becomes immediately unavailable due to
runoff and evaporation as the rainfall is mostly confined to the monsoon seasons
and is not distributed evenly over the entire year. Of the remaining 50%, about
110 m.ha.m alone is the available utilizable potential. By AD 2010, demand for
freshwater would reach almost 105 m.ha.m. which would leave little cushion for
The above facts and projections point to the need for taking
urgent steps to conserve water. Agriculture accounts for 87% of today's water
demand and would still be close to 80% by 2010. Economy in water use in
agriculture would go a long way in releasing water for other sectors. For this
to happen, the wasteful irrigation practices of today should give way to
improved irrigation techniques, new cropping patterns to suit water availability
and calibrated irrigation tariffs to reflect the scarcity of water.
Traditional water harvesting methods such as construction of
lakes, tanks, ponds, check-dams and afforestation of catchment areas have an
important role to play in water conservation both in rural and urban areas. One
conservationist referred to these methods as the 'Dying Wisdom' of the country.
These need to be revived. It cannot be anybody's claim that these traditional
methods can replace the modern gigantic river valley projects. Such a claim
would be preposterous. What needs to be realized is that small solutions
answering limited local needs have a place in the overall water conservation
strategy of the country. Projects, big and small, need to coexist.
Even industrial and domestic uses offer considerable scope
for economy in water requirements. Changes in process technologies like
conversion of wet process cement manufacture to the dry process, water recycling
and reuse can bring about dramatic changes in the freshwater needs of the
Yet another problem with water is its quality. Water
pollution is an all-pervading issue in the country. According to a World Bank
study, 58% of the annual environment related costs in India is accounted for by
surface water pollution. The plethora of diseases which water pollution gives
rise to is the major cause of morbidity and mortality in India. About 30 million
Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs, a measure of earnings foregone due to
loss of man-hours of work and premature deaths) is the cost of inaction in not
improving water quality in India.
Poor water quality is the result of industrial and domestic
pollution. While two thirds of untreated effluents flowing into our rivers
emanate from municipal sources, half the pollutant load is contributed by
industry. Control of water pollution caused by industry and municipal sources is
the prime need of the hour. Here again, a variety of measures need to be adopted
ranging from command and control measures like regulating release of effluents,
monitoring ambient water quality, imposing penalties on defaulters and above
all, fixing a proper price for water supplied to industrial and domestic
consumers. There is ample scope for rationalizing present water charges.
Creating water markets and privatisation of the water industry are possibilities
considered abroad for effecting economy in water use and improving water
quality. One may hear of such proposals in India also soon.
To be continued in the next issue...
Shri. N. R. Krishnan, I.A.S. (Retd.)
As Secretary to Ministry of
Environment and Forests, Government of India, Mr. Krishnan is a pioneer in
environmental policy & strategy formulation
& implementation. He has led the Indian delegation to UNEP governing
council, the commission on Sustainable Development and the Montreal Protocol. He
is currently serving NetPEM as an advisor.