24 October 2015 11:39:14 IST

Water, water everywhere, not a drop to waste

If we are not careful about storing water, the next wars will be fought over this resource

Americans drink their own urine and the Russians’ too. But the Russians don’t.

Oh, sorry. I should have used the words ‘American astronauts’ and ‘Russian cosmonauts’, instead.

A Guardian newspaper story on this published three months back has more disgusting details on what happens as regards water up there, in the International Space Station (which, in case you didn’t know, is a multi-country laboratory-satellite that keeps circling the earth 400 km above us, at 28,500 km per hour. The scientists onboard see 16 sunrises and sunsets each day!)

According to the story, Americans have no compunctions about recycling urine to meet their water needs. Occasionally, if they are short of their stuff, they ask the Russians on the other side of the station, to collect some in plastic bags and pass them on. The Russians, according to Guardian , don’t drink any urine. So, they gladly send it across — from Russia with love.


Yes. But if we are not careful, we will end up having to do the same thing down here, on Earth. So severe is the emerging water shortage trend that you can extrapolate it to the ISS situation.

What! For real?

Ok, I admit, this is slight hyperbole. We may never actually come to that. But things are going to be pretty tough on the water front (literally and figuratively). You must have heard experts comment that the next wars will be fought over water. Gives me the creeps.

We are already in disputes with Pakistan. And we are watching what China is doing at upstream Brahmaputra, tail between legs.

A bit surprising, isn’t it, given that three-fourths of our planet’s surface is covered with water? But dig a little deeper and you will see the reason for the surprise; only 2.7 per cent of all the water available on the earth is fresh water and — this will truly stagger you — 75 per cent of this lies frozen in the polar regions. That leaves 0.67 per cent of all the water in this planet fit for drinking. And most of this is in lakes and rivers.

Water is so precious, and getting scarcer all the time. And, come 2050, the world’s population will have grown to nine billion from 7.2 billion now.

And yet, guess what are we doing with this water? Wasting some resources, poisoning others.

Scene on ground

Here is the scene in our own country. The per capita water availability in India in 1951 was 5,177 cubic metres a year. Now, it has fallen to 1,545. The trajectory further plunges to 1,140 cubic metres in 2050.

But these are just statistics and you know you can push a lot of ugly reality behind averages. A level of 1,000 cubic metres a year is the norm for ‘stress’. Even today, some 22 million Indians are under water-stress. Their numbers will only grow.

The situation is trending to dangerous levels and there is no time to waste. So, what should we do?

Stop wasting, start storing

Talking of storage, here are some interesting and telling statistics. The US has a capacity for storing 7,000 cubic metres of water per person, China: 2,500, South Africa: 700. And India: 200.

Now, the government has taken up the task of ‘restoring water bodies’. In the 12th Plan period (which is now) 10,000 water bodies are to be restored and their holding capacity increased at a cost of ₹6,235 crore. That is but a flash in the pan.

India had 80,000 water bodies ‘not in use’ in 2006-07; several more have fallen into disuse since. Sure, the government has nursed some back to health, but the numbers hardly keep pace with the slippage. The government will keep doing its job. Slow flows are better than no flows.

Is there an industry solution?

Yes! Enter solar-powered water desalination. These plants can be compact, mounted on the back of a truck and shifted from place to place, dispensing drinking water to parched throats.

Today, villages receive electricity from solar plant/micro-grid combinations. Not too many of them — just a small number in the thousands today — but the model is catching on, the number growing. A company called OMC has built 60 solar plants in Uttar Pradesh and powered 1,800 villages with it. Now, if the capacity of each solar plant can be expanded and a water production unit attached… imagine the relief it will bring.

Over time, I see each village or town in India equipped with solar powered water plants. A new solar water industry will come into being — bringing with it more clean-tech jobs for today’s students.