When I was visiting a museum in Athens last year, one of my Greek friends was explaining to me about an ancient water supply canal that went through underneath the museum. It was amazing to see that the authorities in Athens realised the importance of providing clean water for its newly urbanised citizens, even thousands of years ago.
Sadly, in the 21st century, 1,400 children under five die every day from diseases (such as diarrhea) linked to lack of safe water and inadequate sanitation according to Unicef, at a time when the world is richer, technology is better, and knowledge is ever-expanding. It appears that the governments, especially in South Asia and Africa, either do not understand the deep correlation between water and human wellbeing or simply do not care about those who are primarily affected—the voiceless poor.
The close connection between water scarcity and poverty is made clear in both the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2006 and the Millennium Declaration 2000. It is essential for human survival but currently over two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about four billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year (UN 2019).
Although the UN Water Development Report 2019 recognises safe drinking water and sanitation as basic human rights, as they are indispensable to sustaining healthy livelihoods and are fundamental in maintaining the dignity of all human beings, across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa water scarcity is forcing young girls to drop out of school in large numbers. Traditionally, in these societies, it is women’s responsibility to walk miles just to fetch clean water for their families. Meanwhile, inadequate and unequal access to water is both a result and a cause of poverty. The economic development that so many people need to climb out of poverty remains stagnant without the availability of water. With rapid population growth and increased industrial demand, water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years and are likely to continue, making billions vulnerable to food security and economic activities.
Water scarcity hits the poorest the hardest. They pay a poverty premium, directly and indirectly, to meet their water needs. A wealthy Warden Road (Mumbai) or Gulshan (Dhaka) resident has guaranteed availability of freshwater while the poor living in the nearest slum of Dharavi in Mumbai or Korail in Dhaka not only struggle to find appropriate source of quality water but also pay more compared to the well-off. Eminent business thinker CK Prahalad, an expert in the field, exclusively illustrates this in his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.
According to the UN Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2019, Bangladesh has made significant strides in poverty reduction and all developing countries are urged to follow in Bangladesh’s footsteps. In a brilliantly edited book Poverty and Water, Haakon Lein writes about Bangladesh in the chapter titled “Water, agricultural development and rural poverty in Bangladesh.” He finds that during the 1990s, Bangladesh achieved substantial economic growth and made significant progress in poverty reduction. There may be many explanations and one of them is related to agriculture.
Lein argues, along with other issues in agriculture, the single most important factor has been water, or, more precisely, the fact that Bangladeshi farmers have been relatively successful in gaining control over water resources found in this delta. Agricultural growth has been driven by the expansion of dry season irrigation based on privately owned tube wells and pumps, combined with the spread of new high-yielding rice varieties, he goes on to say.
However, 24.2 million Bangladeshis are still undernourished, meaning one in six don’t get enough to eat, and the benefits of economic growth have been distributed unevenly across the country.
When I was visiting my hometown in Sunamganj last year, some farmers told me their accounts of how water is making their families poorer. For example, they cannot irrigate their croplands during the dry season for lack of water and due to floods during the monsoon, as heavy rains wash away their crops. At my request, some local government officials investigated the area, and explained to us the complexities, including government discouragement for private solutions that Lein had pointed out.
Water scarcity may endanger democracy and the state of human rights in India, according to the recently published UN Human Rights Report. It observes, 400 million people in India will have no clean drinking water by 2030. There will be mass migration to the already overpopulated and under-resourced cities; more people will compete for fewer resources; and food prices will go up. In the face of desperation, rule of law might not survive, which will have global implications, the report added, giving India’s government five years to act.
For water-stressed countries, it is not necessarily about physical lack of water available for human use. Africa faces huge problems in securing sufficient clean water for all, but physically, the continent has more water available per capita than Europe. Even Cherrapunji in India, the wettest place on earth, suffers from recurrent water shortages. And bad policies are one of the main contributing factors.
Apart from water-poverty correlations, water will acquire the same strategic significance in the 21st century as oil did in the past century and will therefore play a crucial role in future geo-political relations. The prospect of “water wars” is increasingly becoming likely: the number of water-related conflicts reported worldwide has risen sharply in the past 15 years, according to the Pacific Institute, a water research group.
Every country surrounded by mighty rivers such as the Nile, Mekong, Jordan Valley or Brahmaputra—vital sources of water for billions of people—are at risk of conflict. In his book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Brahma Chellaney argues, “Water scarcity is Asia’s defining crisis of the 21st century.” Water has emerged as a critical issue that will determine whether Asia is headed towards greater cooperation or greater competition as it has the world’s largest number of people without basic or adequate access to water with the lowest per-capita availability of all the continents.
It would be very unwise if the international community ignores this pressing issue concerning the most basic element of human survival.
Ismail Ali is a London-based columnist specialising in development issues.
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