Too little, too much, or too polluted

All photos: KARUN DEWAN

When NASA explores other planets, the test of whether there is life, is to detect the presence of water. Here on Earth, however, this critical natural resource is often undervalued.

Even though 71% of the planet’s area is covered in water, only 1.2% of this is available for human use.

An average person requires 50 litres of water per day for basic use. However, two-thirds of the world’s population is currently experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year-- many more people will be at risk by 2050.

Some of the most serious challenges facing the world – floods, droughts, famine, health and sanitation, and pollution, all involve water. Nine of ten natural disasters are water-related.

By 2050, the number of people at risk from floods is expected to rise to 1.6 billion from the current 1.2 billion, whereas half the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress. Alterations to the natural water cycle therefore poses major risks for global food security, energy production, human health, economic development, and more. The consequences of water stress will be disproportionately felt by the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Nepal may be landlocked, but it lies astride the Himalaya, the water towers of Asia that irrigate vast areas downstream. The annual monsoon water cycle recharges thousands of lakes, ponds, and other wetlands. These water bodies are vital for life, bio-diversity, agriculture, medicines.

Nepal’s rivers drain 225 billion cubic meters of water annually, providing irrigation to 1.43 out of the country’s 2.6 million hectares of agricultural land. The water cycle also recharges 12 billion mgroundwater in the Chure-Bhabar zone of Nepal, habited by 60% of the population.

While the journey of water from the Himalaya to the Tarai is life-giving, it also takes lives away every year in floods. Landslides triggered by deforestation, cultivation in steep slopes, haphazard road construction and earthquakes add to disruptions in water supply. With the climate crisis melting glaciers, lake outburst floods have added to the risk.

A recent World Bank report ‘South Asia’s Hotspots’ warns that climate change could sharply worsen living conditions for up to 800 million people in the Subcontinent. The World Resources Institute ranks Nepal 40thamong most water stressed countries, and with increasing demographic pressure the crisis is set to get worse.

Even the water that is available is now polluted, and Nepal has yet to effectively address domestic, urban, industrial and agricultural sources. Riverbanks are used as landfill sites, or the river beds dredged for sand and boulders.

The water availability per capita per year in Nepal is 8,000 m3 which suggests that the country need not face a water scarcity. Rather, it is poor management of water resources that has led to the curse of too little or too much water.

Inadequate physical infrastructure, rapid population growth and climate change impact access. Rise in demand for electricity, pressure on surface and ground water for irrigation, industrial development, rapid urbanisation with encroachment of wetlands and increased use of water for sanitation during Covid-19 are factors driving demand. Meanwhile, new water schemes are mostly based on ground water aquifers which are being depleted because of inadequate recharge.

Beyond natural and socio-economic value, Nepal’s freshwater resources also hold cultural importance. For instance, indigenous communities like the Bote, Musahar, Kumal, Chepang, Danuwar, Darai, and Tharu settle along rivers and have a rich cultural attachment to water bodies.

Investment in water can have a catalytic effect on other areas such as health, education, agriculture and job creation. Poor water quality halts economic progress, limits human potential and reduces food production.

Much of the supply-demand issue around water can be solved by giving economic value to water, and making it affordable. As the manager of a water supply scheme in Nawalpur once said: “In the beginning people readily paid as much as Rs300 per month for cable tv, but a minimum payment of Rs100 for drinking water was a big issue.” Pricing water at its full marginal cost can reduce demand, just as payments and incentives for water conservation can increase water availability.

Payment for ecosystem services to forest users, farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land must be developed since freshwater wetlands have five times the economic value of tropical forests.

To change the future of water, we must rethink how we understand, value, and manage water as a precious resource, making every drop count. If the water cycle is not managed prudently from source to tap, and back to source, the present crisis will grow worse.

Organization like the World Wildlife Fund, Nepal we are working to manage and restore critical freshwater habitats, maintain, and protect the freshwater ecosystem health and increase community access to and right over water through good water governance.

Conserving water is not the responsibility of only the government, but needs a broader coalition of new partners to find holistic solutions so water is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial.

Karun Dewan is a Program Associate, Freshwater at the World Wildlife Fund, Nepal (WWF Nepal.)