Drinking problems

FOUR related phenomena threaten to increase the water crisis in the 21st century: a natural upper limit to the availability of fresh water; increasing population; pollution; and delay in completing ongoing projects. Water policy planners, therefore, must choose the most efficient method of conservation and use of existing resources.

This was the broad concern of participants at the World Congress of the International Water Resources Association, Water for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. Of the 200 papers presented at the Congress, 23 have been selected and published in the present volume, all providing a perspective on water policy.

Malin Falkenmark draws attention to the lack of importance attached to water related issues by the dominant official line on environment and development. The debate on sustainable development must go beyond global warming and ozone depletion and focus on issues of water pollution and fresh water availability.

On the other hand, Mohamed T el Ashry suggests that primacy should be accorded not to development but to the management of existing water resources. In 1990, only 10 per cent of the demand for water originated in the non-agricultural sector (only 37 per cent of irrigation water is consumed by crops). The rest normally ends up in wastage and waterlogging and soil salinity. According to one estimate, 7 per cent of the world's total irrigable land was suffering from soil salinity. Since there is an upper limit to the natural availability of water, the biggest challenge that water planners are likely to face are those of managing existing resources. Any such policy would have a tough agenda: conjunctive use of surface and groundwater resources, where land and water management account for both quantity as well as quality of water resources.

It is important at this stage of human evolution to realise that importing water from surplus areas to water-scarce areas is neither financially nor socially sustainable. Therefore, attention should be focused on the use of local resources of water harvesting in water deficient arid and semi-arid areas. In this context, watershed development assumes importance not only by way of recharging groundwater sourced biomass production. An integrated land-use plan must choose a profile of crops which do not need large quantitites of water to help sustain the community. Watershed development probably holds out hope for the people residing in arid and semi-arid zones in terms of a naturally available source of sustainable development.

The case studies cover the Aral sea, sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, Egypt, India, Japan and the Netherlands.

---Pranab Mukhopadhyay is a research fellow at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, Delhi