There have been some striking images by eminent photographers wherein, they have been successful in portraying the disparity that exists between communities when it comes to accessing water. Images of women holding water cans in one hand and holding their babies, on the other hand, walking miles to fetch water is again a common sight. These women value water. And maybe seeing the hard work done by these women, the privileged also start valuing water. But, what does valuing water mean? Does it have the same meaning for everyone across the globe?
‘Valuing of water’ would include different economic, social, political or environmental interests. The theme for this year’s world water day is valuing water. The term is very open-ended and aims to bring in different narratives and public discourses. This means there will be more stories around the resource bringing the human angle to the forefront.
A few days earlier, the news that water is to be traded on Wall Street as a futures commodity made big headlines. The question of water being treated as an economic good might make access to water difficult for the poor and the marginalised. On the other hand, another group debates that creating pricing slabs for water is crucial to ensure equitable distribution of water because the aspirational needs with respect to usage of water for day-to-day activities are very high among the rich. Hence, treating water as an economic good is necessary to bring about a possible behaviour change.
The double whammy of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an impetus when it comes to valuing water. There has been a huge focus on WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) practices more than ever before. And for WASH practices to sustain in order to ward off potential public health crises, availability of water at all times must be a priority. Hence, the commodification of quasi-public good like that of water can always bring in conflicting situations thus threatening water security. Water insecurity can happen at local, national and at transboundary levels. Another reason why it is reiterated that the world is already witnessing ‘water wars’.
In 2018, NASDAQ partnered with Veles water and Westwater Research to launch the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index (NQH20), the first of its water index that benchmarks the spot price of water in the state of California. It must be noted that due to climate change, California has witnessed longer periods of dry conditions with lesser wet conditions. This automatically puts pressure on the pricing of water would also bring forth questions like how much does an acre-foot of water currently cost? How tradable water is with respect to other precious metals like gold, copper, Brent crude, etc. Therefore, there needs to be a greater focus on understanding water consumption patterns for policy formulation.
Water is central to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with SDG6 and SDG14 being explicitly water-specific. SDG6 is ‘clean water and sanitation’ and SDG14 is ‘Life below water’.
To realise the true essence of the ‘value of water’, the governance and management of water have to be strengthened. There has to be more emphasis on the bottom-up approach involving more people in the decision-making process. Water rights are shaped around social capital and legal pluralism.
So far, the country has done a good job under the Jal Jeevan mission under the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Since, the launch of the mission, there has been an increase of close to 20.32% of households getting a tap water connection in the rural areas with Goa and Telangana being the only two states having a 100% tap water supply.
It is interesting to note that the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal that will go for polls in the coming days have not delivered well when it comes to the Jal Jeevan Mission. Out of these states, Assam is the worst performer wherein 91.78% of the households are yet to get a tap water connection. If water is to be truly valued, it has to fight to get a space in political manifestos, after all, access to water is a basic human right.
India needs to strengthen its inland water transport system. Not only is it one of the cheapest means of transportation but it also paves way for reducing carbon emissions. The Indo-Bangladesh relation with respect to the Teesta River has not been a good one. In the recently concluded water resources secretary-level meeting, both the countries met under the framework of the Joint Rivers Commission to decide on expanding cooperation in water resources. It must be noted that 54 rivers are shared between India and Bangladesh.
In the South Asian context, the geography of the countries has huge geopolitical significance wherein the need for better water management always comes into the picture. Treaties like the Indus Water treaty, the Mahakali treaty, the Ganga treaty, the Teesta water-sharing deal, etc make headlines frequently. This value of water has made it a state subject in the Indian context. Often times, it is found that in our pursuit of cooperative federalism, water sharing between upper and lower riparian states have been an uncomfortable one. As of today, nine tribunals have been established in the country to resolve inter-state water disputes. It is understood with respect to Article 262 of the Indian Constitution read along with the Inter-state River Water Dispute Act, 1956.
Therefore, it is for this value of water that there needs to be a greater understanding of hydro-diplomacy for enhanced inter-state and transboundary water governance which can act as a means for water security, conflict management and peacebuilding.
In all the urban areas, there are concepts and terminologies that are perhaps always seen yet hardly realised. While it has become exceedingly common for the water bodies of many Indian cities to have lost their ecological significance, yet not many of us are aware that rapid and unplanned urbanisation gives rise to ‘urban stream syndrome’. Symptoms of urban stream syndrome include a flashy hydrograph (flash floods, quick pulses of water in creeks), high concentrations of nutrients and contaminants, altered channel morphology and stability, reduced biotic richness, with increased dominance of invasive tolerant species. Henceforth, once again the question of ‘valuing water’ comes into the picture.
Last but not the least, the challenge of managing non-revenue water has put a huge burden on Asian cities at large. Non-revenue water (NRW) means the amount of water lost in the distribution networks. In the developing world, where regions are water-scarce or already face issues with water supply, NRW can further lead to inequitable access to water. In other words, it may be defined as the difference between the amount of water put into the distribution system and the amount of water billed to consumers- averages 35% in the region’s cities and can reach much higher levels.
Consequently, the expansion of water networks without addressing water losses will aggravate water insecurity, scarcity, waste and inefficiency. Accordingly, the International Water Association has defined water loss as Water loss= ‘real’ losses + ‘apparent’ losses.
The expression ‘real losses’ has replaced the expression ‘physical losses’. ‘Apparent losses’ have replaced ‘non-physical losses’ and ‘management’ losses.
With the pandemic changing the lives of people drastically, valuing water on all fronts and aspects is needed more than ever before in a changing climate.