It's time we thought of different paradigms of water management to address the challenges ahead. Like The Blue October Movement which seeks to preserve the Water Commons.

It is a wretched business to be digging a well just as thirst is mastering you. - Plato

On October 31, 2004, the citizens of Uruguay voted to amend their Constitution to recognise the Fundamental Right to Water. The Uruguayan Constitution now guarantees that right The Blue October Movement is an international commemoration of this historic event and seeks to preserve the Water Commons to realise the Right to Water.

The water challenge: Water resources development and management pose complex global challenges. The water sector faces four such: Resource Availability, Demography, Economic Growth, and 21st Century Challenges.

Resource availability: Only 0.5 per cent of the water on the planet is available for human use. This is now under pressure. Globally, per capita availability decreased from 16,900 cubic metres in 1950 to 6,800 cubic metres in 2000, and is expected to fall to 5,400 cubic metres by 2025. Water is also unevenly distributed, with the developed world being better endowed. Scarcity is both physical and economic and affects Africa and Asia the most. India is spatially and temporally challenged as 50 per cent of rainfall is received in 15 days and 90 per cent of flows occur in just four months.

Storage capacity: Per capita availability varies greatly between countries, mainly on account of storage deficiencies. The developed world is much better off, here. India's per capita storage is 213 cubic metres (m{+3}) as against, 4,733m{+3} in Australia, 1,964m{+3} in the United States, and 1,111m{+3} in China. It may reach 400m{+3} when all current dam projects are completed.

Arid rich countries like the United States and Australia have built over 5,000 cubic metres of storage capacity and China is aiming for 2,000m{+3} per person, but India's 213m{+3} equals only about 50 days of its rainfall, compared to 900 days in the Colorado and Murray-Darling river basins. The need for storage will grow as climate change will increase variability in rainfall and extreme events.

Water demand and food pressure: Agriculture consumes about 70 per cent of all water drawn. In developing countries, it is 85 per cent; Asia accounts for half of all irrigation withdrawals. In India, the green revolution of the 1960s expanded demand for water. Indian cropping patterns and irrigation practices also make for poor conveyance efficiency, at 35-40 per cent and low application efficiency at 40 per cent.

A litre of water produces about a kilocalorie of food. South Asia (2,500 kcal.) and Sub Saharan Africa (2,200 kcal.) lie below the 2,800 kcal food security threshold. They need substantial increases in water supply even to achieve security. No wonder world rice and wheat prices are set to rise by 40 per cent.

Groundwater exploitation: Asia's poor storage capacity has caused large increases in groundwater exploitation, exacerbated by tubewells, loans, and subsidised power. Groundwater accounts for 70 per cent of irrigation and 80 per cent of domestic use, a coping strategy against unreliable public water delivery.

The groundwater revolution has brought agricultural expansion, rural development, and poverty reduction. Indian Planning Commission, however, observes that agriculture uses a third of the State Electricity Board sales but gives only three per cent of total revenue. Secondly, excessive water-extraction means that about 1,600 blocks are now classified as critical or over-exploited, out of 5,723 blocks. Already 15 per cent of aquifers are in critical condition; in 50 years this is could be 60 per cent. Peak Water theory suggests, extraction will now have to be balanced with economically viable yields, e.g. below 200 metres extraction requires massive public investment.

Demography: The world population crossed six billion in 1999 and will be 10 billion by 2050. The per capita availability of water has fallen rapidly, and in developing countries is at 20 per cent of its 1950 level. Food demand is set to double by 2050; without water productivity gains the water needed will also double. In rapidly urbanising developing countries, pressure of urban water supply is increasing. Urban-rural tensions over water are an urgent challenge, as is handling urban wastewater.

Economic growth: The dramatic and continuing rise in food prices during 2008 has hit the world's poor hardest. Competing and increasing demands, together with climate change, has caused water scarcity, which will mean continuing food crises and price volatility.

As incomes rise, food habits change in favour of more nutritious and diversified diets. Rising Asian incomes over the last 30 years have meant greater consumption of water guzzling cereals and shift from cereals to meat. Meat consumption has tripled, using 10 times more water per kg. Urbanisation and income growth will drive higher per capita food intake and richer diets, particularly in low and middle-income countries. It is estimated that over 25 per cent of the increase in demand will be due to dietary changes rather than population growth. That will influence future agricultural water demand because livestock products, sugar, and oil require more water than cereals and roots. Food demand will roughly double in the next 50 years and water shortage could shave a thud of some country GDPs.

Industrial water demand is expected to grow substantially in developing countries and has already started threatening even environmental flows. The globe is littered with examples of water logging, salinity ingress, industrial and urban pollution of water bodies, and severe toxicity. Addressing these challenges will require a paradigm shift in water management.

21st -century challenges

Poverty: The World Water Development Report 3 says more than 660 million people without Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) services live on under $2 a day and more than 385 million people are on under $1 a day. Access is a problem of the poor as 60 per cent of those without services are poor. About $1 trillion will bridge the gap. But the marginal cost of providing water to them has gone up six times, from Rs.1.74 lakhs per habitation in 1991-92. The already vulnerable and food insecure, such as those in agriculture, will be the first affected. Hunger and malnutrition are expected to affect a billion people globally.

Climate change: According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, SIWI, climate change will be expressed through water change, with more drought and flooding, less ice, rising sea levels, and sporadic rains. People in coastal or water-stressed areas will be more vulnerable. Therefore adaptation is essential for sustainable development involving integrated ecosystem protection, with better prediction and risk management.

Water productivity: Clearly, the additional water for increased food requirements must be found through higher water productivity; populous economies like India and China must improve. The best performers produce two to four times more of cereals and high value crops per unit of land and water. The world can make great gains through improved agronomic practices, technological enhancement, and, most importantly, a new water-management paradigm. It is time to address the challenges.

Vibhu Nayar is an IAS officer. The views expressed here are his own.