Quality: Most Pressing Water Problem

Asit K. Biswas


In recent years water has been receiving considerable attention from the global media, policy-makers and the general public. However, this attention has not always been on the most pressing water problems that the world is facing at present or likely to face in the coming decades. The current concern has been that the world is soon going to run out of water. In fact, publications on the impending global water crisis due to physical scarcity of water are truly a growth industry! Having pointed out that such a crisis is inevitable, people then argue that as the scarcities become acute there is likely to be wars between the countries because of shortages of water in many parts of the world.

If one puts “water crisis” in Google, some 132 million items are identified. If “water wars” is used, it brings 74.7 million results! Concerns with both of these issues, like the universe, are expanding constantly!

My view is somewhat different. The real long-term water problem the world is facing is going to be not because of physical scarcity of this resource but due to continued deterioration of its quality. While managing water quality is a serious issue in both developed and developing countries, the future prospects are far more serious for developing countries compared to their developed counterparts.

In 1858, when Joseph Bazalgette constructed the sewer system of London, the Thames River had already become an open sewer. More than 20,000 people died because of a cholera outbreak that year. This heralded the beginning of a new era of safe water supply and proper wastewater management in the developed world.

Unfortunately, however, many developed country metropolises have not updated their sewer systems that were constructed decades ago, especially in terms of uncontrolled leaks and also for separation of rainwater and wastewater. In addition, lack of timely investments has meant that the capacities of sewage infrastructures that were built many decades ago can no longer handle the extra load because of increasing flows due to higher population and industrial activities. Consequently, the old systems can no longer handle the new and higher requirements efficiently.

Currently, some 30 million tonnes of wastewater are discharged to the Thames River without proper treatment each week when there is rain. This has triggered a threat from the European Commission for heavy fines. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater are discharged to water bodies of the nation which are causing 1.6-3.5 million illnesses annually.

Bad as though it is for many cities of the developed world, the situation is far worse for developing countries. In recent decades, highly inflated figures have been put out by international organizations which give a false sense of achievement for both people not having access to safe water supply and also not having proper wastewater treatment. It is now claimed that “only” 780 million people do not have access to safe water. Sadly, work of the Third World Centre for Water Management shows that at least 2.5 billion people do not have access to water that is safe to drink without any health risks.

The Centre further estimates that only about 10 percent of the people in Latin America have access to acceptable wastewater treatment and disposal facilities. The situation is likely to be the same for the Asian developing countries and somewhat worse in Africa.

Let us consider only two major megacities of the developing world: Mexico City and Delhi. Mexico City pumps its untreated wastewater to Mezquital Valley and Delhi dumps its untreated wastewater to the River Yamuna, and both claim that they have adequate “sanitation”!

Fortunately for the citizens of Delhi there is some hope. On 10th October 2012, a bench of the Supreme Court of India expressed its intense disappointment with the present situation. It said: “It is unfortunate that huge public funds were spent without showing any improvement in the water quality of Yamuna”. It then went on to say: “It has been brought to our attention that despite the Centre spending more than Rs 1,062 crores (1 crore=10 million) in addition to amount being spent by local authorities in Delhi, Harayan and U.P., the pollution of Yamuna has increased by the day”.

Earlier the Court had noted that the Government did not have the “will” and “determination” to address the “self-made” problem. The Court was shocked to note that the Government admitted that it has no programme to “arrest the pollution on account of fecal coliform”, even though it admitted the situation was “alarming”.

Sadly, the situation described above for the River Yamuna and Mexico City are representative of deteriorating water quality conditions all over the developing world. One would indeed be hard pressed to find a single river or lake in or around any urban centre of a developing country which is even suitable for bathing or washing clothes. For example, the Indian standards require that the total coliform count in the river water must not exceed 500 MPN/100 litres if it is to be used for bathing. At many locations of the Yamuna, coliform counts are in the stratosphere, an incredible 17,000 million MPN/100 ml, which means these stretches of the river are simply equivalent to open sewers.

The water quality conditions of the Yamuna are not an exceptional case for the developing world. While these conditions can be better or worse for other rivers, the fact remains that they are all heavily polluted with known and unknown contaminants. The health and environmental costs of such contamination are mostly unknown at present. However, they are already very substantial and increasing over time. In some countries, they are estimated to be 4-6 percent of the national GDP.

There is no question that the most serious and critical water problem that the world is facing at present is the steady deterioration of quality. Until and unless the society wakes up to the seriousness of the problem and appropriate countermeasures are taken, the overall health and societal costs can only continue to increase. Thus, business as usual is no longer a solution.

Article published in Nestlé Water Challenge Blog, January 3, 2013