Thursday, March 22, 2012

Water. Not a commodity but our right!

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran.

Today ( March 22) is World Water Day.
   Drinking water is a basic necessity of human beings for a minimum survival. Since we talk about 'welfare state' policies in second millennium, it is the duty of the government to provide that basic necessity for all its subjects, with equitable accessibility to the resource. It is the right of every human beings to demand clean and safe drinking water from his government. But the sad part is that, in the present-day materialistic world, water is also considered as a commodity, which can be sold for money.  Thanks to the greedy capitalistic ideas of the western corporates, water is now sold in packed plastic bottles. The governments, both at the centre and the state level, are increasing trying to shift the responsibility of providing safe drinking water to the private sector. Yes, it is a good idea of providing safe drinking water to people amidst contaminated water sources and increase in water-borne diseases, but I would rather say it is not a sustainable idea towards water security in India and environmentally, economically and socially we are paying a heavy price.  

     Indians currently spend about $360 million a year on bottled water, analysts estimate (2010). Indian bottled water industry is a whooping Rs. 4000 - 5000 crore market (2010), with an annual growth rate of 40% (2009). India ranks in the top ten largest bottled water consumers in the world and its per capita per annum consumption of bottled water is estimated to be five litres. Today it is one of India's fastest growing industrial sectors. Between 1999 and 2004, the Indian bottled water market grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25 per cent - the highest in the world. The  total annual bottled water consumption in India had tripled to 5 billion liters in 2004 from 1.5 billion liters in 1999. Global consumption of bottled water was nearing 200 billion litres in 2006. A national level study estimates that there are more than 200 bottled water brands with an equivalent share of domestic players. In fact, making bottled water is today a cottage industry in the country. Leave alone the metros, where a bottled-water manufacturer can be found even in a one-room shop, in every medium and small city and even some prosperous rural areas there are bottled water manufacturers. But, India is a land of 1.2 billion people with a huge share of poor. About 128 billion ( which, according to me is a too low estimate) lack access to safe drinking water. The World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. Diarrhea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily—the same as if eight 200-person jumbo-jets crashed to the ground each day.

     The cost that we and our mother earth pay for packing that so-called 'pure' water in plastic bottles is very high. It is said that every litre of bottled water wastes three litres of natural water for its production. "Crush the bottle after use" goes the labels, which means that about 1.5 million tons of plastic wastes annually, taking up valuable landfill space, leaking toxic additives into the groundwater and a whopping 1,000 years to biodegrade, if ever! What about the fuels used in the process of making these plastic bottles and for transporting and preserving them?? For producing these 1.5 million tons of bottles annually, we emit around 1 million tons of Co2 into the atmosphere. 

     We pay around Rs. 16 to 20 for a litre of so called 'pure' water in towns and cities. It is apparent that this trend for safe drinking water is hostile to less privileged classes both in rural and urban, forcing them to opt other sources often compromising safety. Studies claim that a very fraction of the 360 million dollars that we spend annually for bottled water is enough to improve tap water and sanitation facilities for the whole India. Yet, governments will never think about it because the revenue that they receive by various taxes on bottled water and the GDP contribution that that the industry make are far more important for it. Indian Railways took the initiative of providing clean drinking water free of cost for its customers. RO (Reverse osmosis) water purifiers were installed at various train stations and were quite successful. But the discrepancies on the part of maintenance and reliability of such facilities raised serious questions. Often the greedy shopkeepers in the station platforms damage them, in a bid to increase their profits on bottled water sales and even the IRCTC ( Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), which takes care of catering services both in trains and stations, felt that the bottled water revenue were much higher and thus, gave no importance to tap-water facilities. 

     Water is a natural resource which is common for all and is a basic right of every human beings. For that matter, all living beings have a say in such key resources that are meant for survival. No one can take away people's right to clean and safe water, not even the government. The first thing that we need to do in this regard is rule out the notion of considering water as a commodity. It is ridiculous that we are in a situation of buying drinking water for money. It is the duty of the government to ensure that all its citizens have equitable access and opportunity to reach that very basic need for survival. Here, the people in authority must understand the importance of sustainability to water security. It is possible to improve the quality of tap water in both urban and rural areas, of course a herculian task, but it can be done effectively by the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model. And the facility should also be available free of cost. Governments can invest more on desalination projects and water purification systems at possible public places, ensuring effective mechanisms for their maintanance. Existing laws on pollution of water sources such as rivers, lakes, wells, etc. are toothless, which needs reforms. Corporates need to shoulder social responsibility in protecting the public welfare and the environment wholeheartedly, giving less preference to profit maximisation. Common people also share responsibility in conserving water and protecting water sources from contamination. Unless until a collective effort involving everyone - governments, corporates and the people - is taken, drinking water for all at equal access and free of cost will be a distant dream. Once a policy plan and legislations are made, certain roadblocks and implementation problems can be solved with ease. 

     The theme for World Water Day 2012 is 'Food and Security: The world is thirsty because we are hungry.' The main aim is to spread awareness of the amount of water that is consumed on cooking food. UN-Water's website says that cooking around one kilo of wheat 'drinks' upto 1500 litres of water, leading to scarcity is a plentiful planet!