March 22 (Sunday) was World Water Day.
As we lock down economies to battle coronavirus, we need to understand how critical the issue of water — clean, safe, and accessible to all – is. Today, the only defence against the pandemic is that we wash hands frequently — for 20 seconds each time. The fact is clean water remains the most important preventive health measure in the world. So, today, as we confront the new global enemy in the form of coronavirus, the availability of water will be a crucial determinant for a successful outcome in this war.
Most of us take comfort from the fact that we can get water from our taps and if we find that this is not clean enough, we simply switch to buying and drinking bottled water. We opt out of the public water system and move to private water, forgetting two things. One, that the water we buy also comes from public sources in most cases, and two, that even if we buy bottled water, we still excrete water as urine — the more water we use, the more sewage we will generate. If this sewage is not intercepted and then taken for treatment, it will add to pollution and degrade waterbodies. We are back to square one, in terms of dirty water.
The water crisis
is our health crisis. Take coronavirus.
The 20-second hand-wash, advised to kill the virus, would mean roughly 1.5 to 2 litres per wash; washing hands frequently would mean we need 15-20 litres of water per person; a household of five would need 100 litres just for handwashing. And, even assuming that you do not leave the tap running when you rub your hands with soap, water consumption will be high, but it is necessary to keep the virus away and to keep you safe.
This then is the challenge. A large number of people in India and vast parts of the still emerging world do not have access to water, forget whether it’s potable. How then will they be free of the virus? The pandemic teaches us that we are as weak as the weakest link in the chain — the contagion requires we ensure that everybody has access to public health so that nobody is left out and nobody can be the carrier of the virus. It is the same with water. If people do not have access to clean water, they will not be able to prevent the spread of the disease. The contagion will not be controlled. So, access to clean water is not just a fundamental right, it is absolutely necessary for preventing and controlling diseases.
The good news is that we know what needs to be done. Water, as I have said before, is a replenishable resource; we can make sure that we harvest every drop of rainwater, build local water storage systems, change diets so that we eat water-prudent crops, and recycle and reuse every drop of wastewater. Now, we need to get this right.
But the most important lesson of the current pandemic is that we need to make sure everybody has access. This means that we must rework our water and wastewater management systems so that they are affordable for all; the current paradigm is so expensive that it can reach some households but not all. The longer the pipeline to bring water from further distances away, the higher the cost of supply. This adds to the inequities in water distribution — large numbers of people in our cities do not get access to piped water supply. They get water in tankers or depend on dirty and unreliable water sources for drinking and other needs, which in turn adds to their health burden. But this is not all. The higher the cost of water supply, the less the water utility has to spend on taking back the sewage and treating it. So, dirty water flows into our waterbodies and the cost of cleaning this becomes prohibitive.
It is not enough any more for us to plan for more water or more sewage treatment plants. We need to re-design supply so that we cut the length of the pipeline, by investing in local water-harvesting systems. We need to re-design demand by reducing water usage so that we reduce water wastage. We need to re-design sewage management so that we treat wastewater to return manure to the land and clean water to our rivers. But the bottom line is that it must be affordable for all, or it will not be sustainable for any.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment