Water footprint varies from country to country, depending on each region’s consumption. It also depends on the climatic conditions and water usage in areas where consumer goods are produced. The water footprint is an indicator of both the direct and indirect use of water by a consumer or producer.

The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community.

Let us analyse the water footprint in India and the challenges around it.

The country’s water footprint was 987 billion cu metres a year during 1997-2001, which means 980 cu metres a year per capita (Source: Hoekstra and Chapagain, 2008).

Poor access to freshwater

Water supply and sanitation remain inadequate, despite longstanding corrective efforts at various levels of government and community. Investment in water and sanitation is very low in India, compared to international standards. However, compared to the past, access to water has increased significantly. For instance, in 1980, rural sanitation coverage was estimated at one per cent, which touched 21 per cent in 2008. Also, the share of people with access to improved sources of water has increased significantly from 72 per cent in 1990 to 88 per cent in 2008. However, no major city is known to have continuous water supply, and an estimated 72 per cent of people still lack access to improved sanitation facilities. It is noted that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have better sanitation records than India.

A 2007 study by Asian Development Bank showed that in 20 cities, the average supply lasted 4.3 hours a day.

Untreated wastewater

When it comes to sanitation and treatment of wastewater, the situation is alarming. Most Indians depend on on-site sanitation facilities. Sewerage facility, where available, is often in bad shape. In Delhi, the sewerage network has lacked maintenance over the years, and raw sewage in open drains often overflows either due to blockage, settlements or inadequate pumping capacity. Of the 2.5 billion people in the world who defecate openly, some 665 million are in India. This is of greater concern as 88 per cent of deaths from diarrhoea occur due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Only an estimated 27 per cent of wastewater is treated in India. What happens to the untreated water? It straightaway goes either into rivers — our lifelines, or canals, or mixes with groundwater. Newsweek describes Delhi’s Yamuna river as “a putrid ribbon of black sludge” with faecal bacteria way above safety limits, despite a 15-year programme to address the problem.

Falling groundwater level

On average, between 2000 and 2007, about 61 per cent of the country’s irrigation needs was met from groundwater. The most dramatic change in the groundwater scenario is the increase in the share of tube wells in irrigated areas from one per cent in 1960-61 to 40 per cent in 2006-07.

With varying rainfall and depleting groundwater, the country has the challenge to ensure supply of freshwater to its ever-increasing population. Also, it needs to undertake complete wastewater treatment immediately. But to achieve this, we need to know how much freshwater is consumed for different purposes, so as to estimate the efforts needed from the Government and the corporate sector; and create awareness on the importance of using this scarce resource judiciously.

Thus, in order to account for water usage and establish the accountability between different segments of society, we need to revisit how we account for water usage and its retreatment. Traditional national water use accounts refer only to the water withdrawal within a country. They do not distinguish between water use for making products for domestic consumption and for producing export products. They also exclude data on water use outside the country to support national consumption. In order to facilitate broader analysis and better-informed decision-making, the national water use disclosure and accounting should be made significant to help monitor whether we are returning as much clean water as we are taking from Mother Earth. Unless we are responsible about our water footprint, the fear that the next world war will be fought over water might just come true.

Here is an interesting comparison: The UK (244,800 sq km) has an interconnected canal system of 4,000 km, as against India (3,288,000 sq km) with the same 4,000 km of canal system!

Auditing the volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services required by the country.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 20, 2012)
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