Globally, we consume 4 trillion cubic metres of fresh water every year! Out of this, 70% is used for agriculture, while 20% goes into industries and households use the remaining 10%. According to United Nations’ estimates, by 2025, 30% of people residing in 50 countries will face major water shortage. In India alone, the numbers are frightening. The availability of fresh water has declined from 3000 cubic metres to 1123 cubic metres in just 50 years. With rising demand for water, the supply just does not match up.
We need to weed out those that are the thirstiest for water and identify those who’ll suffer the most. Otherwise, the consequences will be grave and inevitable, as these prophecies suggest…
Agricultural Sector: “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the thirstiest of them all?”
In India, 90% of water is used towards agriculture. The country’s growing population demands more food, while more food requires more water. Unfortunately, much like humans, food crops do not absorb salt water, they need freshwater supplies. To make matters worse, 60% of India’s irrigation water and 70-80% of our drinking water comes from groundwater. Since groundwater takes decades to replenish, we won’t have any to use at all. That’s not good news considering how dependent we are on groundwater.
Since India is the 2nd largest rice producer and 3rd largest wheat producer – both water-intensive crops – it’s the top ‘water over-user’ for agriculture.
Shrinking water resources will make it extremely difficult for food production. Any more food shortages across the globe might lead to a ravaging fight between countries over food grains. Remember Mad Max Fury Road?
Industries + Energy Sector: “When energy comes into sight at the sound of the roar, sorrows will be more.”i
Industries use up water for cooling, processing, diluting or washing. In India, industries take up about 41% of water from lakes, 35% from groundwater and 24% from municipal sources.
In developing countries like ours, water demand for industries and the energy sector is going to keep increasing in the coming years as we aim to catch up with developed nations. As of 2000, India was already 3rd in industrial water use in the world, behind U.S.A. and China. With a rise in population, there is an increase in demand for more electricity and other products, which will inevitably lead to the rise of water use.
Our thermal power plants (used for power generation) are the biggest consumers of water. These thermal power plants use up water supply enough for about 1 billion people. These power plants will be the first to suffer in a water crisis, along with the people it provides energy to.
Engineering, paper, textile, and steel are industries that follow not far behind with a significant amount of water overuse.
Domestic Sector: “You shall be betrayed by one who calls you a friend, with every drop of water.”
With cities choking on people, ground and surface water will not have the time it needs to be replenished. For instance, in Hyderabad, several natural aquifers and lakes (like Osmansagar and Himayatsagar) have been providing drinking water to the city for over 100 years. Excess migration to the city, coupled with unplanned and irresponsible construction; resulted in traditional aquifers getting blocked, in which case water overuse led to increased contamination. The story repeats itself in most major cities like Bangalore, Kerala, Mumbai and so on.
When faced with a shortage of domestic water, households find it hard to accomplish routine tasks like cooking and cleaning. In the worst case scenario, it can also cause natural calamities to be more devastating and could even lead to a lack of safe drinking water.
Who’s to win and who’s to lose?
The simple answer is, there is no winner. Every industry will face the brunt of water shortage in the future. The food industry starting from agriculture to processing of food products will take a major hit. Water shortages will lead to widespread food insecurity, and food prices will soar, resulting in widespread hunger and an economic slowdown. But there will be some others that will bank on this shortage and reap benefits from the same. Water recycling industries and desalination plants will become popular. Currently, desalination plants provide 1% of world’s drinking water supply. This is bound to increase in the next decade. As water scarcity becomes rampant, there may come a point where seawater may have to be converted into fresh water for use while wastewater will have to be recycled and used in industries and elsewhere. Moreover, fossil fuel power plants will take a back-seat due to their water overuse and we might turn to cleaner forms of energy like solar and wind power. In India, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is pushing for the implementation of these renewable energy sources in small communities.
What are we doing to help?
Realizing the gravity of the situation, experts world over are busy finding newer ways to conserve water. In India, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana has been introduced to conserve water through water-saving technologies and precision irrigation. It follows the ‘more crops per drop’ motto and aims to bring in more efficient farming methods with proper irrigation. Meanwhile, other simpler techniques have been introduced by modern farmers. One of them is the conjunctive use of water which means the use of surface water in wet years and use of groundwater in dry years. Farmers are paid to use surface water to maintain the minimum level of water in ground aquifers. Resorting to less water-intensive crops may also help save more H2O.
The Ministry of Environment has asked all proposed thermal power plants to reduce water consumption by 30% and have asked existing plants to reduce water usage by 10% by December 2017. This will require all such plants to install cooling towers that will reduce water usage.
If we succeed in conserving water before the planet dries up, we can emerge as the winners in the war against water scarcity.