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Environmental costs of transporting water
By Sudhirendar Sharma

With increased emphasis on fulfilling individual requirement for water, the ecological impact of water transfer from distant sources is not taken into consideration.

Photo courtesy: AP

Believe it, we now have a water menu on offer that neither refers to temperature quotient of water nor mentions its origin. Instead, it draws distinction between different brands of bottled water. Pick the costliest from the impressive list and one is assured of unstinted purity of water. It isn't fiction, such menu are commonplace in leading luxury hotels in the capital. Asking for filtered or tap water against such menu is close to being rude or discourteous!

Contrast it with the brutal scuffle over water distribution that took four lives in Madhya Pradesh during May this year, the water valuation of humans under two distinct conditions becomes evident. This water divide has been allowed to perpetuate so as to beggar belief that the systemic failure afflicting water distribution may be deliberate! It may seem so given the fact that 1,869 billion cubic meters of annual utilizable water has been cited adequate for the entire population.

No wonder, packaged water is rarely short on supply whereas piped water invariably is. It is believed that nepotism, corruption, pilferage and wasting saddles public water supply whereas efficiency, reliability, marketing and outreach remain high points of the growing private water sector. The recurrent water scarcity in seven most populous states across the country reflects state's persistence with pathetic attributes to its public water distribution system.

The violation of the human rights over water notwithstanding, the Supreme Court has directed the government to reverse the crises in next two months. Though genuinely reassuring, a legal directive may not transform a system that reflects a combined failure of the legislative and the executive. Such directives do pull the state out of inertia but consequent minor economic tweaks and unrealistic political fixes do not resolve the crises.

Conversely, time-bound legal directives often spur unrealistic developments. Interlinking of rivers was one such move following the apex court's suggestion in 2001. Aimed at erasing inter-basin water disparity, the court had asked the government to link country's northern and peninsular rivers by the year 2012. The deadline is not far but the ecologically contentious project remains as good on paper as it was when first mooted.

Officials are convinced that if a ten years time was unrealistic then, two months is too short a time to fix the problem now. However, between the two court directives the tanker supply has become an accepted democratic reality, ferrying water across urban habitations as well as far flung villages. That the 'poor can pay more' has been repeatedly reaffirmed, transporting water like other goods for individual water security has gained currency.

Be it in a tanker or a bottle, the drive to extend the reach of packaged water into every aspect of economy seems irresistible. And a growing economy demands that consumption becomes a way of life, wherein buying and consuming goods is an everyday ritual. However, beyond a minority of concerned consumers not many realize that a growing affliction to packaged transported water is fast creating apathy towards community water resources and its management.

While growing apathy towards community resources like ponds, lakes and rivers leaves these sources vulnerable to over-exploitation, absolving the state of its duty to deliver municipal services creates space for free market economy to take over. The net impact is that self-reliance in drinking water, through packaged water, is achieved at the individual level but at an irreversible cost to self-sufficiency at the community level.

Transporting water across long distances has become an uncontested inevitability. Each directive by the court in the recent past has reinforced the belief in water transfer as an unavoidable solution. As individual fulfillment reins supreme, the ecological impact of water transfer from distant sources is not considered serious enough by the majority of consumers. No wonder, despite its grievous ecological impact the idea of linking rivers has been widely endorsed.

Simply put, capitalist market does not encourage an iota of concern in individuals towards ecological issues. As more consumers identify with capitalist ideology, it becomes convenient for the market to manipulate situations. With an impressive 72 per cent household relying on open wells for drinking water, Kerala state may seem an exception. But its extensive rainfall pattern and abundant natural resources hide the crude reality of its growing water insecurity.

The fact that over 82 per cent of well water is contaminated on account of an extensive spread of deep pit latrines in the vicinity of the family wells has made the state vulnerable to capitalist design. Ironically, a system that has failed to deliver elsewhere gets prescribed again. But given the inherent flaws in public water system, it will not be surprising if the god's own country resorts to water transfer across basins for meeting its water security.

Kerala has a case in point only if it reverses the trend in sourcing water? It is perhaps the only society that lives closest to its water source, ingenious protection of its community sources can sustain its low carbon status in an era of global warming. It has now known that moving, treating and distributing water accounts for a significant share in carbon emissions. In the market-driven economies, where carbon footprints of water accounts for no less than 5 per cent of country's emissions, need is for encouraging water delivery systems which are environmentally sustainable.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  Environmentalist, development analyst and columnist  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, a critic of the contemporary development processes. A prolific writer, he was a senior correspondent with India's leading weekly, India Today, and the science editor for The Pioneer newspaper. He holds degrees in agriculture and environmental science and lives in Delhi. He is attached with the Ecological Foundation.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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