Water stress to increase, hurt economies

A new report has highlighted a likely massive increase in pressure on existing water sources to meet agricultural, industrial and domestic demands in the coming decades. The 2016 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report “Water and Jobs”, published jointly by UNESCO and UN-Water, has emphasised the need for improving resource management and realising the importance of water in job creation.

The report notes that water scarcity manifests itself through a combination of hydrological variability and unsustainable human use. In terms of per capita availability of renewable water, the statistics reveal that South Asian and African countries are typically facing greater water stress.

According to the report, 25-60 percent of India’s renewable fresh water capacity has been depleted. Access to water, hit by successive droughts and erratic monsoons, also paints a worrying picture with over nine-tenths of the country experiencing either physical or economic water stress. There is a clear divide in the water stress experienced between south India, which is physical stress due to water shortages, than that in the north, where access to water is limited by a lack of capital and resources.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report from 2015, globally, an estimated 663 million people lack ready access to improved sources of drinking water, while the number of people without reliable access to water safe for human consumption is at least 1.8 billion. The same report has also noted that more than one third of the global population—some 2.4 billion people—do not use improved sanitation facilities. Of these, 1 billion people still practice open defecation.

Freshwater water resources around the world, several already in different stages of depletion, are only likely to be put under further stress. According to a 2012 assessment by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an estimated 2.3 billion people will be living in areas with severe water stress, especially in northern and southern Africa and South and Central Asia by 2050. Another report from the Water Resources Group predicts that the world could face a 40 percent global water deficit by 2030 at current population and economic growth rates.

The UN report explores the link between the economy and water. While an estimated three out of four jobs that make up the global workforce are either heavily or moderately dependent on water, about half of the world’s workers—1.5 billion people—are employed in eight water and natural resource-dependent industries. This means that water shortages and problems of access to water and sanitation could limit economic growth and job creation in the coming decades.

“Water and jobs are inextricably linked on various levels, whether we look at them from an economic, environmental or social perspective. This edition of the World Water Development Report breaks new ground by addressing the pervasive relationship between water and jobs to an extent not yet seen in any other report,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in a statement to the press.

The report notes a number of studies that find correlations between water-related investments and economic growth.

Investment in small-scale projects providing access to safe water and basic sanitation in Africa could offer an estimated economic return of about US $28.4 billion a year, or nearly 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) of the continent. Such investments, apart from having a direct economic benefit, will also have a beneficial effect on employment, claims the report. Authors cite the example of the United States, where every $1 million invested in the country’s traditional water supply and treatment infrastructure generates between 10 and 20 additional jobs. According to the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, each such job created in the local water and wastewater industry creates 3.68 indirect jobs in the national economy. The study also cites case studies from Latin America where an investment of $1 billion in the expansion of water supply and sanitation networks would lead to 100,000 new jobs.

Transition to green economies and increasing investment in alternative technologies such as rainwater harvesting, recycled wastewater and urban runoff as responses to the rising threat of climate change and global warming is also likely to substantially add to the job market.

For water and sanitation as a sector, the report states that while it has great job generating potential (especially in developing countries), it is currently understaffed around the world due to a difficulty in attracting skilled workers. According to the report, the lack of sufficiently skilled labour in water and sanitation has contributed to the estimated leakage of 30 percent of total withdrawals of fresh water. It indicates that this can be addressed with greater investment which would create more jobs and reduce wastage which would be crucial to coping with projected requirements for water.

Creation of water harvesting structures: Will the Centre achieve the target?
In view of consecutive monsoon failures over the past three years, the Union Budget 2016-17 aims to address the problem of drought by focusing on increasing irrigation potential to improve agricultural productivity.

Towards this end, the Centre has announced the construction of half a million dug wells and farm ponds and one million vermicompost pits in rain-fed areas under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGS).

“The scheme allows gram sabhas to discuss and decide over development work and provide mandays to villagers who demand work. The target should not be fixed from above (read higher authorities),” Nikhil Dey, a Rajasthan-based MGNREGA activist said.

The announcement has garnered much appreciation as it empowers the gram sabhas to decide about the work to be done as against the target set up by higher authorities.

Tackling drought
According to experts, the target is ambitious. If we go by the current progress of creating water harvesting structures and renovating water bodies, the target seems impossible within the given time period.

The current rate of asset creation related to building water harvesting structures is 562 per day. If we go by the target set in the current year, the government has to construct or renovate around 1,370 water conservation structures per day.

“It can only be completed if things are driven under the mission mode,” Dey added.

Last year also the government had come up with an unusual target without any ground preparation. In 2015, the government had planned to construct 42 water harvesting structures every hour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The target had failed miserably. The rural development ministry did not even want to talk about its performance. The Centre’s ambitious target of constructing one toilet per second had also failed miserably.

Taking this target seriously, the rural development ministry conducted a meeting with state governments from March 10 till March 22, 2016 to discuss the roadmap to achieve the current target.

“This time our focus is on asset creation. So, we prepared our roadmap and will take inputs from the state governments and roll it out from April,” Aprajita Sarangi, joint secretary, MGNREGS, ministry of rural development, said.

“We are going to start this on a mission mode with a transparent monitoring mechanism to track each and every asset,” she added.

The ministry has allocated Rs 1.60 lakh for each farm pond and Rs 10,000 for each vermicompost pit. Besides, it has sanctioned 50,000 anganwadi centres and 1 lakh individual toilets under this scheme.

(Views expressed are strictly personal)
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