World Water Day: The COVID-19 Pandemic Is A Reason to Be Extra Cautious Today

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Beach Cleaning at a local beach at Vishakhapatnam

March 22 is celebrated every year as World Water Day. But, with the Janta Curfew, the much-needed celebration and discussion on water will not happen today. Maybe we all can become a bit more aware of water issues in our days of self-isolation/quarantine?

The theme for this year’s world water day is ‘Water and Climate change’ and explores how water and climate change are inextricably linked. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, our reason to be extra cautious this day becomes even more relevant. I had never thought the basic principles of WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) will become so relevant in this time of crisis that I have to set reminders on my phone to wash my hands thoroughly after a certain interval of time for the day. In the summer of 2007, when I had gone for a pleasure trip to the UK, I remember my mother specifically buying hand sanitisers as gifts for friends and family back in India. I remember using it cautiously as I didn’t want to finish the bottle soon. Thirteen years down the lane, in 2020, these same hand sanitisers seem to be prized possession with this pandemic scare. It feels very surreal!

The sustainable development goal 6 (SDG 6) exclusively deals with clean water and sanitation and sets priorities for a shared water future. The World Water Development Report (WWDR) 2020 was released by UN-Water on the 21st of March 2020 and aims at helping the water community to tackle the challenges of climate change and informing the climate change community about the opportunities that improved water management offers in terms of adaptation and mitigation.

Representational image.

The report states that the energy and agriculture sectors are increasingly shifting to low-emissions production systems, with generally positive implications for freshwater demand as well as water pollution. However, the quality of water resources is expected to deteriorate due to a number of interacting factors: increased temperature; increased sediment, nutrient, and pollutant loadings from heavy rainfall; increased concentration of pollutants during droughts; disruption of treatment facilities during floods; and groundwater deterioration due to saline intrusion in coastal areas as a consequence of sea-level rise (IPCC, 2014a; UNEP, 2016). This report clearly defines the terms adaptation, mitigation and resilience for clearer understanding as often times these terms are used interchangeably.

SDGs 6, 13 and 14 have a direct or an indirect effect on all the other sustainable development goals. Water should now be considered as a connector rather than a standalone sector. The report also points out that there are a high variation and low confidence in projected water-related impacts of climate change at the sub-regional scale in Asia and the Pacific. The region is highly vulnerable to climate-induced disasters and extreme weather events, which are disproportionately burdening poor and vulnerable groups.

Water-related climate impacts intersect with other socio-economic trends that impact water quality and quantity, including industrialization (which is reshaping sectoral demand for water and increasing pollution), population growth and rapid urbanization. The latter has also increased exposure to water-related natural hazards such as floods. The indiscriminate use of freshwater and exploitation of groundwater resources puts many Indian states at the risk of getting more water-stressed, the best example being the state of Punjab. There has to be greater and urgent stress on having better governance regimes and standards in understanding co-riparian rights and managing Asia’s transboundary basins.

The Beach Cleaning Experience At Vishakhapatnam

Afroz Shah, a lawyer from Mumbai has been famous over the past few years for raising awareness about the marine litter that is killing the Bombay beaches. His tireless efforts have drawn worldwide recognition and have motivated people from all walks of life to clean the beaches. The cleaning of Versova beach was a huge success. He is a UN Champions of the Earth for all the right reasons!

Taking this cue forward, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a beach cleaning activity organised by my office on 14 March 2020 just a week before World Water Day. We are supposed to do this activity on the second Saturday of every month. I had gone to the local beach which shares the same coastline of the famous Rushikonda Beach at Vishakhapatnam. It was a great experience breaking the monotony of the week and making me all inspired to be back to the office the following week!

There was a significant amount of littering all over the beach. It was not as dirty as those Bombay beaches but littering of beaches are a global thing that needs more attention. Plastic is a menace even though it is an indispensable product. Waste products ranged from toothpaste caps to coffee stirrers, plastic straws, biscuit wrappers, earbuds, beer bottles, pillows to even men’s underwear. I could almost find everything under the sun.

Representational image.

It is extremely important to be responsible when we buy any plastic item which eventually gets packed in a plastic bag. It’s time to switch to sustainable options. All of us have this bad habit of tearing packets of food items, chocolate wrappers, milk sachets whenever we see the ‘tear here’ instruction on the packet and we end up cutting the entire piece. It generates small pieces of plastic waste which never makes it to the recycling process and ends up in the ocean. This, in turn, enters the bodies of the marine species and chokes them to death.

In the Indian context, water is a state subject and gives rise to a lot of conflicts if two or more states involved in water sharing do not get their required share of water. The lower riparian states are the ones facing the highest brunt of water stress in the country. NITI Aayog came up with the second Comprehensive Water Management Index in August 2019 which measures the performance of states on a comprehensive set of water indicators and reports relative performance in 2017-18 as well as trends from previous years (2015-16 & 2016-17).

It encourages cooperative federalism which is one of the basic principles of the institution and such a benchmarking exercise can go a long way in creating a common frame for progress for water in India and also highlight the need for specific improvements. There have been many success stories and best practices from various states that have been shared in the report and are worth it to understand the gravity of the water issues plaguing our country. Different states need different water solutions given the difference in geography, agro-ecological zones and there needs to be a very strong policy framework for recycling and utilising treated wastewater.

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