Very few drops to drink: Water pollution is a bigger environmental threat than climate change

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Asit K. Biswas

THE TIMES OF INDIA | March 7, 2015 

Sadly, water all over the world receives a low priority in public agenda. Climate change has become a major issue, promoted as it is by Nobel Prize winners, environmental activists and climate scientists, NGOs, Hollywood stars and filmmakers. Water issues sadly have not elicited such support. Yet over the medium term of 10 years, water issues will have significantly more adverse impacts than climate change. The WEF report is therefore to be welcomed for providing water a much-needed boost.

This of course does not mean that climate change is not important. However, over the medium term, efforts to ensure the availability of adequate quantity of good quality water need greater emphasis. In addition climate change has numerous uncertainties, but we know how to solve water problems. We also have the knowledge, technology and investment funds needed to solve them. Yet, poor water management continues all over the world and there is no sign that this situation will improve soon.

Ancient civilisations grew up on the banks of major rivers like Indus, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates where water was plentiful. Human beings are emotionally attached to water, much more so than to any other resource like food or energy. This emotional attachment has made efficient water management a difficult process. Throughout history, water has been taken for granted and has been used and abused as seen fit. We have yet to accept that water is a limited resource which must be managed prudently.

One manifestation of this emotional attachment is that water is provided free, or at highly subsidised prices, almost everywhere. Agriculture accounts for nearly 70% of all global water use. Yet not a single country charges farmers full operation and maintenance costs for irrigation water, let alone investment costs.

Even for domestic water, people in very few cities pay the real cost. With sensible water pricing, utilities can be financially viable and people would use water efficiently.

Poor water management over decades has created numerous structural problems. The Aral Sea used to be the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake. The diversion of two rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which provided it with a steady flow of freshwater for cotton production, has reduced it to only a small shadow of what it used to be. Lake Chad was one of the largest water bodies in Africa in the 1960s. Unsustainable water use has meant that its level and size have shrunk by an incredible 90%.

Take China. In the 1950s, the country had 50,000 rivers having catchment areas of more than 100 sq km. By 2013, this number has been reduced to 27,000. Rivers have disappeared because of overuse by agriculture and industry. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Indian water bodies are facing a similar fate.

Many of the mighty rivers have now become a trickle by the time they reach the sea. These include the Colorado, Nile, Indus, Yellow and Murray rivers. The World Commission on Water has noted that more than half of the world’s rivers are seriously depleted.

Water bodies in near all urban centres of the developing world are seriously polluted. There is no shortage of evidence. In 2011, water from more than half of China’s largest lakes and rivers was declared unfit for human consumption. More than half of groundwater in northern China is so polluted that it is not suitable for bathing, let alone drinking.

The Indian government reported in 2013 that nearly half of the country’s 445 rivers are too polluted for drinking in terms of biochemical oxygen demand and coliforms. If other pollutants like toxic chemicals and heavy metals are considered, the overwhelming majority of water sources can no longer be used without expensive treatment.

The economic, social, health and environmental costs of such heavy contamination are increasing steadily. In some countries, the real costs of poor water management are approaching as much as nearly 5% of GDP.

If current trends continue, the situation will get worse. Take industry. Nearly two-thirds of companies now consider that water poses a substantial risk to their business. Mining giant Rio Tinto announced in April 2014 that it would abandon its Pebble Mine project in Alaska because of water-related concerns and donated its 19% stake to two state charities.

Millions of people are dying each year due to water-related diseases. Droughts and floods are inflicting tens of billions of dollars in damages each year. The United Nations has estimated that droughts are the world’s costliest natural disasters, inflicting $6-8 billion annual losses. Every year floods contribute to major damages, including loss of lives. All these can be significantly reduced by better water management.

As the eminent poet W H Auden noted, “Thousands have lived without love, but not one without water.”

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe chairs the 2030 Water Resources Group. Asit K. Biswas is distinguished visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.