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ISTANBUL, CITIZEN NEWS SERVICE — Water constitutes about three-fourths of Earth’s surface, but only less than 1 percent of it can be used by its inhabitants. Most of it consists of saltwater oceans (about 97 percent), and 2 percent of that is contained in glaciers. With every country seeking to satisfy its ever increasing water needs from shrinking and limited water resources, there is the potential for future wars and conflict.

As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said recently, cooperation, not conflict, should guide us in our quest for a solution to this crisis.

In 1992, the U.N. General Assembly designated March 22 as World Water Day (WWD) to draw international attention to the critical lack of clean, safe drinking water worldwide. The theme for this year’s WWD was “Shared Water — Shared Opportunity,” with the focus on transboundary water management and sharing. There are some 263 transboundary lakes and river basins, which include the territories of 145 countries and cover nearly half of Earth’s land surface.

Despite an apparent abundance of clean water in most of the developed nations, more than 1 billion people around the world lack clean safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation service. One-third of Earth’s population lives in “water-stressed” countries. The crisis is worst in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Lack of clean drinking water and basic sanitation is a big obstacle to progress and development. The worst sufferers are women and children who must trudge long distances to retrieve meager amounts of water for domestic use. This prevents them from pursuing an education and doing more productive things. The quest for water can drive one mad.

India faces a rapidly worsening water crisis in urban and rural areas. A soaring population, the speedy sprawl of cities, a vast and thirsty farm belt, and indiscriminate use of water have left water in our country too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and as a useless surfeit in areas that are flooded every year. The result is there for all of us to see and ponder. More than 700 million Indians do not have adequate sanitation, let alone safe drinking water.

According to a U.N. report, about 2.1 million children die every year, largely for lack of clean water.

Changing lifestyles and dietary habits, private control over water resources and climate change (resulting in floods and droughts) are worsening the water crisis and wreaking economic and ecological havoc on our blue planet. Poor countries, like India, are at a greater risk as water scarcity threatens the health and livelihood of their populace.

Groundwater depletion is a major environmental concern in our country, demanding an immediate and effective agenda in groundwater management. Water and soft-drink bottling plants are contributing largely to this in regions where they are situated. Overuse of pesticides/chemicals has added to groundwater pollution in rural areas.

People in some regions of India are compelled to drink water polluted with an excess of fluoride leading to dental fluorosis and arthritis. Waterborne diseases are still a bane of our society.

To get a bucket of drinking water is a struggle for many rural women. The cost of fetching water in India is almost equivalent to 150 million women workdays each year, which amounts to 10 billion rupees.

In Rajasthan, the desert state of India, a rural woman walks, on average, 14,000 kilometers a year just to fetch water. Their urban sisters are slightly better off, standing in long queues for hours on end to collect water from public taps or lorries. There is a grim rural saying in one water-starved region of India: “Let the husband die, but the earthen pot of water should not be broken.”

Even in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, intense water rationing takes place and residents are relying more and more on private water tankers to meet their daily requirement for this precious commodity.

It is ironic that even as India is touted as a global power to reckon with, the Indian government has failed to deliver the most basic of all needs to its citizens. In fact, water should not be a demand or a need, but a basic human right, just like clean air. Yet, it has become a commercial product, like oil, thanks to a lack of political will and citizen apathy.

The need of the hour is harvesting rainwater, judicious use of water for domestic use and, above all, the political will to tackle the problem.

I remember from my childhood that domestic taps rarely went dry and none of us ever used water-purifying systems at home. Now the scenario is reversed. The taps seem to be there just for decorative purposes, unless there is a booster pump (which is usually connected to the main supply and still works at specific hours). Water obtained this way is not fit for drinking till it is boiled, filtered or chemically purified. So, basically the supply of clean, potable water is a business in private hands. This must end.

Public-private partnership will have to be replaced by public-public (government) partnerships. In Thailand, I was appalled to see people buying bottled water just for drinking. In India, too, this trend is catching on, but most urban households still resort to purifying water obtained from taps/private tankers.

Of course, we are as much to blame as the government. Our daily domestic needs for this scarce commodity have increased by leaps and bounds over the years. Washing machines, flush-toilet systems, shower baths, house plant watering hoses and carwashes are just some areas in which we use water insensitively.

What can we do at our level to reduce this global water crisis? For starters, let’s resolve not to waste water and, if possible, limit its use. Children, as well as adults will have to realize the impact of water shortages. We should: • Not use the toilet as an ashtray or wastebasket to avoid the need to flush away trash. Every time we flush, we use about 12 liters of water. • Turn off the tap while brushing our teeth. This will save about 20 liters of water every day. • Fix leaky taps, as one drip per second wastes 30 liters of water per day. • Wash cars and bikes with a bucket of water and sponge instead of a hose, which wastes up to 15 liters per minute. • Use the bathroom shower judiciously. A four-minute shower uses more than 60 liters of water. • Use full loads in washing machines and dishwashers for optimum utilization. Let the governments and international bodies seek solutions at a more global platform. For our part, let’s just be more sensitive and sensible.

Shobha Shukla writes extensively in the English and Hindi media. She serves as editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). This article was written at the time of the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul. Web site: www.citizen-news.org E-mail: shobha@citizen-news.org

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