Also in the current issue of Newindpress Sunday is this piece for World Water Day.
My abiding memory of the summer of 93 is the acute water shortage in Madras. Though it was not the first (or last) in the city’s history, it certainly was my first brush with water scarcity. I can still remember my initial excitement when the dozen, shiny, plastic water pots arrived at home and how my sister and I fought over who would mark them with the family crest - a bespectacled teddy bear - so as to differentiate them from the dozens of other identical pots that lined the parapet walls of our street. Of course the fascination was short-lived. After a week of having our lives held ransom by the smoke belching water lorries, we had had enough. Aching backs, sore shoulders and the mini turf wars that erupted along our street added to our tedium and we soon joined those praying to the Gods for rain.
Looking back, I realise now how lucky we were. The presence of a retired judge in our lane and the not-so-discreet five rupee notes that residents passed on to the lorry drivers ensured the arrival of the water lorry every other day. But across the developing world, living without water has become a way of life and with World Water Day on March 22, there is no better time to look at how water and the lack of it affects us.
“We forget that the life cycle and water cycle are one,” said Jacques Cousteau. Nothing could be truer. Without food a human being can survive for 40 days, whereas without water the chance of survival is bleak after two to three days. Yet we live in times where over one billion people across the world do not have access to water. While the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 20 litres of water per person per day (for bathing, cooking, drinking and washing clothes) in times of crisis, the reality of the situation is very different. In Darfur the quantity of water available per person per day was no more than 7 litres in 2006, a situation familiar to people living on the outskirts of Ulan-Bator, Grozny and rural Afghanistan.
Finding water is often an arduous mission in developing countries, with people walking an average distance of 6 km, carrying loads weighing up to 20 kilos and this task is often shouldered by women and children. Apart from the obvious affects on public health, this trend also adversely shapes socio-economic development (the time spent on this chore means a loss of income from farming and other income-generating activities) and education.
The solution to water scarcity does not end with finding a supply. Contaminated water is a source of disease and contributes to more than one-third of deaths in developing countries. Annually, 1.8 million people die of diarrhoeal diseases of which 88 per cent are attributed to poor water quality, inadequate hygiene and sanitation (WHO 2004). In India, 90 in every 1,000 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable diseases like diarrhoea. Close to 45 per cent of Haiti’s population have no access to drinking water, 40 per cent of the world’s population do not have basic sanitation and a paltry 15 per cent of India’s rural population has access to toilets - the list of apocalyptic facts and figures is a long one. Yet, thankfully, as with all things there is hope.
WaterAid, an international NGO has been in India since 1986 and works in both rural and urban areas to help populations gain access to safe, sustainable and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene education. Working in 10 Indian States, WaterAid hopes to ensure that at least 245,000 people gain access to safe water and at least 200,000 people have improved sanitation every year by 2010. Take their work in the slums of Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, where over 115,000 people live without clean water and sanitation in overcrowded, filthy conditions. WaterAid joined forces with three local partners and negotiated with the local government to develop sanitation infrastructure in 100 slums. WaterAid’s three-year targets were reached within one year and nearly 15,000 people gained access to latrines. Action Contre La Faim, a charity that ensures food security, water and sanitation in countries afflicted by war and natural disasters, has helped close to 165,000 Sri Lankans by installing water points, latrines and showers in the two years since the South Asian tsunami. These are just two examples of work done in the subcontinent. Across the world, similar success stories are being enacted every day.
So what can we at home do? Though ‘Coping with Water Scarcity’ is the theme for World Water Day 2007, helping conserve water isn’t a bad place to start. From running the washing machine only when there’s a full load to rain water harvesting, every drop of water saved counts. And till the Water Gods start listening to the prayers of those doing without, things could be as simple as turning your tap off.
Sources: ACF UK, WaterAid, The Johannesburg Summit Report 2002, Image copyright of ACF UK /Sri Lanka