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07 December 2008


The collective mass of water found on, under, and over the surface of a planet is called hydrosphere and it measures some 1.36 Trillion KM Cubes by volume. The distribution is given in the chart. (From the chart it is evident that Tethys isn’t too loaded. So we the inheritors of her ‘fortune’ need to be more prescient of its utilisation)

 The human body is anywhere from 55% to 78% water depending on body size. To function properly, it requires between one and seven litres of water per day to avoid dehydration; the precise amount depending on the level of activity, temperature, humidity, and other factors. Most of this is ingested through foods or beverages other than drinking straight water. It is not clear how much water intake is needed by healthy people, though most people advocate that 6–7 glasses of water (approximately 2 litres) daily is the minimum required to maintain proper hydration. (Makes you reach for that bottle of Perrier, doesn’t it!)

 Humans require water that does not contain too many impurities. Common impurities include metal salts and/or harmful bacteria, such as Vibrio. Some solutes are acceptable and even desirable for taste enhancement and to provide needed electrolytes.

 To India My Thirsty Land

India, a country of 1.13 Bn people, requires at least 2.26 Bn litres of drinking water alone. It is putting a severe strain on the country’s water resources. Most water sources in India are contaminated by sewage, industrial and agricultural runoff. India has made progress in the supply of safe water to its people with access to improved water currently stated to be at 86%, but gross disparity in coverage exists across the country. Although access to drinking water has improved, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. Lack of clean drinking water is a major cause of the high infant mortality rate (at 34.61 deaths per thousand). In India, diarrhoea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily—the same as eight Mumbai-Taj attacks each day (with much less media hoopla too).

 Its an irony that India surrounded by water bodies on three sides, home to 13 major rivers, the largest river island (Majuli) and the highest rainfall ( Mausingram) faces shortages every year. I have never lived in Chennai but 'no water' or contaminated water is commonplace news in its regional dailies. They are termed as ‘unfortunate incidents’ by the bureaucrats. Such 'incidents' occur throughout India, year after year, whether the monsoon is officially declared 'good' or not.

 Consider This

The per capita water availability in India was 3.45 kiloliters in 1952. It stands at 1.8 kiloliters now. i.e. a total of 2034 Bn Litres and by 2025 it is estimated to fall to 1.2 kiloliters per person. The Indian Army trains to fight and survive on 10 litres per person per day. For the rest of us even if we mandate 100 litres per person per day(that’s five buckets), we have enough water available 18 times over. Of course it doesn’t account for the swimming pools, car washes, artificial rain dances and omni-directional showers! That’s even more ironical considering the falling per capita availability. (I hope some bureaucrat is reading this and wondering how they got it so wrong!!) The bottom line is  - availability is not an issue.

 The Urban Milieu

Even though the rate of urbanization in India is among the lowest in the world, the nation has more than 250 million city-dwellers. Experts predict that this number will rise even further, and by 2020, about 50 per cent of India's population will be living in cities. This is going to further put pressure on the already strained centralized water supply systems of urban areas. The urban water supply and sanitation sector in the country is suffering from inadequate levels of service, an increasing demand-supply gap, poor sanitary conditions and deteriorating financial and technical performance. Supply of water is highly erratic and unreliable. Transmission and distribution networks are old and poorly maintained, and generally of a poor quality. Consequently physical losses are typically high, ranging from 25 to over 50 per cent. Low pressures and intermittent supplies allow back siphoning, which results in contamination of water in the distribution network. Water is typically available for only 2-8 hours a day in most Indian cities. The situation is even worse in summer when water is available only for a few minutes, sometimes not at all.

 According to a World Bank study, of the 27 Asian cities with populations of over one million, Chennai and Delhi are ranked as the worst performing metropolitan cities in terms of hours of water availability per day, while Mumbai is ranked as second worst performer and Calcutta fourth worst. (This picture here is an interesting aside I picked up from a friends e-mail.  Thanks Vinay.). It happens only in India.

 Urban centres in India are facing an ironical situation today. On one hand there is the acute water scarcity and on the other, the streets are often flooded during the monsoons. This has led to serious problems with quality and quantity of groundwater.

 This is despite the fact that all these cities receive good rainfall. However, this rainfall occurs during short spells of high intensity. (Most of the rain falls in just 100 hours out of 8,760 hours in a year). Because of such short duration of heavy rain, most of the rain falling on the surface tends to flow away rapidly leaving very little for recharge of groundwater. As water shortage increases, alternative sources of water supply are gaining importance. These include sewage recycling, rainwater harvesting, generating water from humidity in the atmosphere etc.

 The Significant Other

Shortages apart, the analysis remains incomplete if we don’t emphasize on the quality of water available for drinking. The fact is that it is deteriorating fast. As early as in 1982 it was reported that 70 per cent of all available water in India was polluted. The situation is much worse today. We have spoken about diarrhoea. The other common attacks due to the ill conditioned water in India are Hepatitis A, B, C and E viruses. Around 3% in India fall a prey to Hepatitis B. Around 2% are affected by Hepatitis C virus which attacks the bones. 

 Faced with poor water supply services, farmers and urban dwellers alike have resorted to helping themselves by pumping out groundwater through tube wells. Today, 70 percent of India’s irrigation needs and 80 percent of its domestic water supply comes from groundwater. Although this ubiquitous practice has been remarkably successful in helping people to cope in the past, it has led to rapidly declining water tables and critically depleted aquifers, and is no longer sustainable. Over extraction of ground water has led to salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers. It has also resulted in problems of excessive fluoride, iron, arsenic and salinity in water affecting about 44 million people in India. Ground water is facing an equally serious threat from contamination by industrial effluent as well as pesticides and fertilizer from farm run-offs.

 Sanitation and water management should be looked at simultaneously. Too often attention is focused on drinking water supply, leaving sanitation and wastewater treatment for later. For every 100 litres of water going into a house about 90 litres is drained back, bulk of it as sewage waste.

 A number of areas are already in crisis situations: among these are the most populated and economically productive parts of the country. Estimates reveal that by 2020, India’s demand for water will exceed all sources of supply. Notwithstanding the catastrophic consequences of indiscriminate pumping of groundwater, government actions – including the provision of free power – have exacerbated rather than addressed the problem.

 The End Game

So what’s in it for me? Well for starters these are problems which beg a solution. In the solution, we sense a business opportunity for us. The specific areas of opportunity could be divided into two distinct parts – usage and post-usage. Usage would include sourcing, treatment, supply and distribution of water for personal, agricultural, industrial and commercial use. Post Usage could include opportunities in waste water and sewage treatment, recycling, sanitation and similar genres. The Post Usage areas impinge on issues like conformity to eco- regulations and environmentalism and thus are a study in themselves – perhaps a topic for another research. Let us for the moment concentrate on the Usage part.

 Watch this space for more on the specific business opportunities and the Indian companies indulging in them.



Anonymous said...

Please change background colour, it is a strain on the eyes, when reading. Would appreciate it. THanks

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