The Worth of Water, When the Well is Dry

Posted on March 26, 2010 in Environment

Somdutta Sarkar:

“Jack and Jill went up the hill, and they were sitting idle.” — A striking advert in a swanky Mumbai mall, subscripted with the warning “no water, no life”, caught my eye recently during a trip to the maximum city. It was a day before World Water Day in March this year, in fact, when ‘Clean Water for a Healthy World’ became a slogan that made its way into our inboxes, computer screens, living room conversations, and collective consciousness one way or the other.

We are halfway into the Water for Life Decade, an initiative that started on 22 March, 2005 with a view to highlight and improve the sheer magnitude of the many problems concerning safe drinking water and basic sanitation that are faced by billions of poverty-stricken people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, over one billion people have to depend upon potentially contaminated sources of water for meeting their basic needs every year, with the result of about 3900 children dying of infection and polluted intake every day. This has given rise to a looming humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, placing both human and environmental health at great risk for present and future generations.

Consider the implications of tossing a tiny innocent looking candy wrapper into a seemingly endless water body. Billions of such wrappers dumped into a sea would surpass the amount of plankton in it by a couple of times. Being non-biodegradable, these plastics would break down into small pieces and last as such for centuries, attracting toxic chemicals onto their surfaces, contributing to eutrophication, and spreading the contamination into the surrounding waters and marine life. The contaminants are passed up the food chain, or via direct contact, to the human consumers, frequently causing waterborne diseases.

In Mumbai, a visit to the exquisite Haji Ali dargah leaves one with a bittersweet taste in the mouth. The awe-inspiring Indo-Islamic structure and the near-spiritual walk to the shrine across the causeway over the sea are sullied by the colourful litter heaps covering the sloping base of the islet and the adjoining causeway right up to the stairs to the edifice. During high tide, the waters of the Worli Bay wash away the refuse into the sea, only to recede once more during low tide, leaving fresh ground bare for repeated deposits of plastic scraps, rags, food waste, wrappers, and other assorted trash.

Our world produces 1,500 teralitres of waste water every year. In developing countries like India, 80 percent of the waste produced is discharged untreated due to absence of proper regulations and resources. Population overload, rapid urbanisation, and industrial growth add not only to the existing sources of pollution but also to the increasing demand for clean water. In the next ten years, the world’s population will have doubled, and water availability will have plummeted to the highest of crisis levels.

The acute crisis facing those with no sustainable access to safe drinking water struck me abruptly when one night, while strolling along the Colaba causeway with a friend; I was hailed and hassled by an urchin in plaits. I tried to wave her off, assuming that her profile must be similar to that popularized by Slumdog Millionaire or at least to those of the familiar streetkids back home, until I realized that the only two words the little waif kept repeating insistently were “Give water!” As a prudent traveller, I make it a point to drink only bottled mineral water on trips, and was carrying a Kinley in my hands at the very moment that must have attracted my assailant’s attention. There being no question of denying anyone water to drink, I gave away the bottle immediately.

Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention when water became scarcer and pricier than food and money, which would explain my slightly stunned reaction. Being born in a self sufficient environment, I knew nothing of the places where a barrel of water cost more than a barrel of oil. Yet, with the litter strewn waters of the Arabian Sea lapping at my feet at the otherwise picturesque Bandstand promenade and mineral water prices rising regularly somewhere afar in Rwanda, I can come close to envisioning a terrifying world where “water water everywhere, not a drop to drink” doesn’t seem so much a figment of Romantic imagination anymore, but more like a frightening future prospect bidding its time to transform into reality.