Around three-fourth of the earth's surface is covered by water that is being recycled - naturally and continually. Yet, different studies reveal the terrible foreboding of twin challenges many countries are confronted with: the availability of water is insufficient and many of the water bodies are polluted.
We primarily need an understanding of what proportion of the available water is easily accessible. According to a UNESCO report, only 2.5 percent of the available water on the planet is fresh while the rest is saline. What is worse, only a fraction of this freshwater is termed "easy to access" as a good proportion of the rest is trapped, for instance, in glaciers.
Besides, the burgeoning population today along with their insatiable desire for development and luxuries puts enormous strain on available freshwater. Often water pollution goes rampant. All these posit the need for appreciating the true value of water.
In future, the availability of sufficient water might turn out to be a recurring concern. It is becoming even more relevant amidst climate change. With World Water Day being celebrated today with the theme "valuing water …… what does water mean to you?" it is time to ask ourselves about the true value of water.
The costs we do not see
Resources like water are far more expensive than one might think of. And there are solid reasons to be convinced that some resources are worth more than what we really pay for them.
The seeming abundance of resources prompts individuals to take them for granted. Hence, individuals feel less pressed or inclined to conserve resources.
People like denim jeans, do they not? We are very fashion-conscious these days and do not hesitate to head to shopping malls to buy covetable jeans. Many of us have started acquiring more jeans and discarding them faster.
However, 10,000 litres of water, based on a report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) published in 2019, are required to produce a pair of jeans. Do we factor this much water into the cost?
Textile industries are normally mandated to treat water before discharging it to nearby rivers or water bodies. Yet, there are examples of irreversible damages to water bodies/rivers in different countries thanks to the untreated wastewater discharged from textile industries.
Well, the basic tenet of the private entities is to maximise profit but, in this resource-constrained world, it is they who should take care of the pollution that ruins the ecosystem of the water bodies.
On the other side of the coin, water that reaches our homes or industries has already passed through an energy-intensive process, ranging from extraction, treatment to transportation.
Since the water table is going down gradually - because the rate at which it is being lifted is more than the rate it is being replenished - higher energy requirements for water extraction from the ground is an obvious outcome.
Overusing water at the individual level, by leaving the water running while brushing one's teeth, or shaving, etc., unwittingly or callously, therefore, costs us more energy, time and money.
Besides, the extra energy required to treat or lift water releases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, creating further obstacles to reaching the net-zero emission goal.
Also, when 13 percent of the global population, reportedly, does not have access to modern electricity, additional electricity requirements to treat polluted water or extract more water imputed to wastage is sheer luxury.
Also, the foodstuffs we consume are considerably dependent on water. By wasting these foodstuffs every day and in hefty quantities around the world, we not only disregard the need of many hungry people but also squander resources like water and energy, which we often do not realise.
Access to water is a big challenge for many
Over the years, there has been dialogues and seminars across the globe about the imbalance linked to water resources, particularly due to the people's lack of access to water, growing pollution and misuse.
While water lies at the heart of economic activities and is indispensable to life, there is a lot of attention that needs to be placed to ensure universal access to water. It is difficult as a UNESCO report states that 45 percent of the global water supply is concentrated only in six countries.
Further, the latest facts and figures of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) paint a grim picture - safely managed water services are not accessible to 3 in every 10 people globally.
The situation is in dire straits given that 80 percent of human-induced wastewater is discharged into rivers and seas without treating the same to remove pollutants. Among other things, basic water services are not available in 1 in 4 health care facilities in the world.
Climate change to further intensify water crisis
The water-related challenges could also be substantiated from the data of water.org that shows that globally, women and girls spend over 266 million hours per day to fetch water.
An example could be the uphill tasks that the coastal women and girls of Bangladesh are entrusted with to collect water from far areas, following the climate change-induced severe cyclones – Sidr and Aila.
As the climate continues to change and its impacts are more visible than ever, there is an increasing likelihood of the mentioned challenges in future.
For instance, scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claim that the change in rainfall patterns was not normal compared to the past. The intensity and frequency of cyclones are on the rise and so are the duration of floods. All these could further exacerbate the existing water-related problems.
Realising the true value of water
Appreciating the true value of water, based on its scarcity that has already manifested and the costs involved in delivering it to the users' ends by utilities would provide sufficient rationale for businesses to manage water better and thus opting to build water resilience throughout their value chain.
Additionally, they should strongly comply with regulations and help protect water bodies from irreversible damages.
Individual response is also key – which involves changing the tendency to buy new fashionable items frequently and quickly discarding old ones, and taking conscious and informed decisions to conserve water whenever possible.
In tandem, the governments across the world shall evaluate the price of water to take measures gradually to remove the likely presence of perverse incentive that prompts businesses or individuals to overuse or pollute.
Of course, this process should take appropriate consideration of the people who do not have easy access to water and/or are of the lower stratum of society.
The author is a Humboldt Scholar and an environmental economist