If water is to be freely and equitably available to everyone in the future, we need a new paradigm to address the challenges of resource constraint, government apathy and policy stalemate.

“Man is a complex being; he makes deserts bloom and lakes die”. Stern

Even without clairvoyance, the global water future looks bleak. The present water crisis is predicted to intensify in the face of demographic and economic pressure, resource abuse, and poor governance. Studies indicate that by 2050 the world will face a water gap of 40 per cent with nearly a billion going hungry every day; a scenario of food shortages, galloping prices, even water wars. According to a recent report, by a group of International Financial Institutions (IFIs), improvements in the ecological sustainability of water are among the main changes needed for the world to achieve its economic potential.

The global comity needs to urgently address these triple challenges of resource constraint, institutional apathy, and policy stalemate. A new paradigm is urgently required to address this water challenge. Its conceptual framework would rest on the twin intertwined axis of Supply and Demand. In this new construct, the Supply side would encompass strands of water enhancement, policy realignment and governance reform. The Demand side would be characterised by elements of water productivity, urban management, and community collaboration.

Substantial hurdles

The first supply-strand of water enhancement needs to overcome substantial quantitative and qualitative threats. Response to the water gap would require concerted attempts to increase hydraulic capacity, especially in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC countries). India and China have to increase their per capita storage by 20 times and should capture at least 200 days of rainfall, to catch up with the West. In view of the debatable benefits of large dams, the focus should be on the revival of traditional local resources like tanks and ponds. The depletion of aquifers across Asia is a classic tragedy of the commons. Unbridled abstraction and export of water needs to be replaced by in-situ development of local watersheds through basin-recharge strategies. Livelihoods and aquifers can still be saved by improving the water-energy efficiency of ground water irrigation.

Ecological balance, which is threatened by multi-source pollution, needs a slew of corrective actions. An effective triad of responses would be better legal enforcement; community education and greener development choices. People in decentralised institutions can be educated and empowered to implement this triad and safeguard against domestic, agricultural, and industrial pollution. Grassroots institutions as guardians of local resources will unleash a virtuous cycle of responsibility and accountability towards restoring ecosystems.

The second strand in the supply paradigm is the creation of an appropriate policy framework. The immediate context is the declaration of the UN General Assembly recognising water as a human right in September 2010. This necessitates a revision of policy principles from the earlier economic good theory to a public good construct, from eminent domain of the state to a public trust doctrine and from a nation state perspective to a principle of subsidiarity — a comprehensive inversion of water policy, targeting the health and livelihood gains of unreached communities and small holders. Sustainable livelihoods from every drop of water, rather than efficient exploitation of resources, would be the new mantra. Downstream, practice in compartmentalised silos needs to be supplanted by a holistic, interdisciplinary, and integrated approach to addressing the water gap. Undoubtedly different policy praxis is required for different situations. Africa requires investment in infrastructure, Asia needs to focus on water productivity, and the West needs to reduce its profligacy. Probably the time is ripe to adopt Peter Gleick's “soft path for water” by matching services to social and ecological concerns.

Huge inequities

Transforming economies declare high access to on-premises water. But the reality is that only two per cent of the poorest quintile, in comparison to 65 per cent of the richer, have such access. Such inequity defines the water-governance challenge, the third strand on the supply side of the new paradigm. Governance reform can be achieved by reinforcing public institutions through a process of change management focusing on individual and organizational perspectives, values and attitudes. Thus creating a new ethos of democratic governance and improving service delivery for the unreached, rooted in the understanding that the voiceless citizens have the first charge on critical services.

As to demand management, food security is the biggest challenge of this century and the solution is completely dependent on the way we manage our water. As a corollary, the second axis of the reconstructed paradigm is the demand management of water resource. This is significant in view of the dwindling fresh water resource (139 aquifers are already dry), increasing competitive demands and looming food crisis.

Community Collaborative Water Management, advocated by the Centre of Excellence for Change (CEC), is the most appropriate response to the demand challenge. Village Water Vision, based on a collective understanding of water, can engender an inclusive and democratic approach to better managing the resources as well as equitably sharing the deficit. Harnessing local wisdom, institutions and social capital for sustainable bottom up solutions will provide a riposte to service delivery challenges in parastatals, hampered by limitations of post colonial technocracies and centralized command structures.

A concomitant strand would be to ensure water productivity gains over poverty and hunger. Achieving food security in the face of climate change requires both upgrading rain-fed agriculture and improving yields per unit of water, to the global average. Asia and Africa need to reduce the crop water food print by 10 times. Conveyance and application efficiencies can be increased from the present lows of 35 per cent to the western average of 70 per cent. Such crop per drop improvements would include drip irrigation, yield enhancement, and soil conservation. The potential of this strategy can be gauged from the fact that a mere 10 per cent improvement in water use efficiency in India will bring another 14 million hectares under irrigation, which is equal to the total achievement since independence, after an investment of Rs.2.3 lakh crores.

Need for new methods

Rapid urbanisation of the world has underscored the need for better urban management. City master plans should include action plans especially for domestic water supply, grey water management and rain water harvesting. In-situ recharge of local aquifers, green infrastructure, as initiated in the US and backed by $2 billion, for on site absorption of run off replacing expensive storm water networks should be the policy option. Recycle and reuse of grey water, as done by NEWater in Singapore, are also potential strategies for urban water management.

Urban policy should provide for a separate slum strategy for both drinking and grey water. Low cost waste water treatment processes like the Decentralised Wastewater Treatment Systems (DEWATS) should figure prominently in action plans. Similarly, in rural areas with increasing supply levels, treatment and reuse of waste water will have to be addressed to ensure health benefits and to prevent pollution of existing sources.

Truly achieving our blue water future requires a revolution in the way we treat the world's most critical resource. To forestall a million mutinies the time for action is now. For the poor, water and food are never out of fashion.

The writer is a Civil Servant. The views expressed here are his own.