East Vs West – Addressing the real and impending global water crisis

An analysis of the water crisis in Western developed nations with efficient public systems and India’s disappearing traditional systems.

Leonardo Di Caprio rarely takes a shower to conserve water and raise awareness on the water crisis. While many (especially his girlfriend) may argue that this is taking things too far, the water crisis is real and impending.

Pic – water.org

An average American uses 176 gallons of water per day, compared to the 5 gallons of water the average African family uses each day. Also according to a national study of residential water use, the average American shower uses roughly 17 gallons of water and lasts for around 8 minutes. Indians are not any better. An average urban Indian consumes 15 gallons of water for his shower. Between 1990 to 1995 itself, water consumption across the world raised six fold, and the UN predicts the situation to get much worse. In countries like UK, water shortage is so acute that they actually import water for domestic and industrial use (Only 38% of its water comes from its own resources). Our own garden-city-turned-concrete-jungle Bengaluru requires 1.3 billion litres of water every day. The Catch every drop campaign spearheaded by The Alternative last year highlighted the drastic need for treatment, conservation and recharging of our depleting water resources. Also, Di Caprio is not alone in his concern over the scarcity of water; our very social star Aamir Khan quoted in his column to the Hindu that “life means water, and water means life“. Yet, how can we afford to be so careless with this elixir of life?

World Water Usage
Pic – www.chartsbin.com

The first step towards conservation is to understand the consumption patterns. In a typical Indian urban home drinking water forms a small part of a household’s water consumption. Bathing, laundry, and flushing will account for anywhere between 60 to 70 per cent of the water consumed. Household waste water falls into two broad categories – grey water (leftover from bathing, hand-washing, mopping floors) and black water (waste water that contains human waste including fecal matter). The first step is to minimize the usage of harsh detergents and chemicals which pollute the water and make it unfit for recycling. Grey water recycling, which is non-existent, offers a huge opportunity for responsible citizens to play their part in solving a global water problem said Preethi Sukumaran, an environmentalist and CEO of Krya, a company that deals in products for sustainable urban living. Since the responsibility sits in the hands of the common man, it is our obligation to the environment to act on it. To successfully harness grey water, follow the simple three step procedure advocated by the greenhomeguide.

Initiatives like compulsory rainwater harvesting (which recharges the water table) promoted by IAS officer Santha Sheela Nair (backed by the ruling AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu) also stalled the water crisis from getting out of control. In Bengaluru alone, Retro-fitting rainwater conservation systems in apartments have emerged as resident success stories.

China can store 5 times as much water per person compared to India, so there is plenty of room for improvement. But federal and state governments are forever languishing failing to step up its water management legislatures (ILR in particular) to avoid overusing the ground water as well as conserving water from natural resources. India has a rich history of conserving water dating back to the Vedic times. From terraced plots to step wells, community wells to underground storage, percolation tanks to reservoirs, civilization thrived in the Thar Desert to the peaks of Himalayas. While our ancestors worshipped the aquifers, river bodies and the entire water ecosystem, activism from the government is at present tardy or non-existent. So the onus falls excessively on the citizen. Since droughts and floods make a perennial appearance in our vastly populated country, water harvesting and conservation should be our top priority.

Water Sense Label

In Western countries mainly the US, water supply and water treatment is straightforward. Left to the government owned public works department, waste water flows through the community’s sewer plant to a waste water treatment facility. After being subjected to a variety of different processes this water is again released to local waterways where it is used for a variety of different purposes. So recycling of water is effective, efficient and sustainable. What about consumption? Are Western countries frugal or excessive?

The average family of four in the US can use 400 – 700 gallons of water every day, and, on average, approximately 70 percent of that water is used indoors. (In India consumption per family stands around 145-200 gallons per day). As home owners, installing water efficient toilets and faucets proves to be a great start. They are proven to use less water by allowing only a certain amount of water flow per minute. In cities like Atlanta, Georgia, the government offers rebate on such installations. Also products bearing the Water Sense label are 20% more efficient and effectively reduce water consumption.

While recycling offers relief to Indians, efficient and reserved consumption is the call that many immigrants have to adhere to. For the most part, water scarcity is a man made problem so redemption has to come from within. Remember the mug that was found in every restroom in your ancestral home? Maybe it’s time to bring it back to the western world and finally shut that tap. Water may not be available forever if we don’t start conserving it today. Our children will live in a world of thirst because we did nothing to save water.

Featured image courtesy: Carnie Lewis | Flickr


Meera Ramanathan is a freelance writer dabbling in food, cinema and travel. She lives in Connecticut while maintaining roots in Chennai and is often caught in the immigration melodrama. She blogs ardently at http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com. more


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Meera Ramanathan is a freelance writer dabbling in food, cinema and travel. She lives in Connecticut while maintaining roots in Chennai and is often caught in the immigration melodrama. She blogs ardently at http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com. more

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  • Anil

    I strongly disagree with the tone of this article which tell us to devolve and go backwards. Flowing tap water is a great convenience and we should aim to give everybody more. Rather than living in scarcity, we should aim to have more fresh water for us and our children.

    Water is the second most abundant compound in the universe(after molecular hydrogen) and is widely found on Earth. Water is a renewable resource. It doesn’t get destroyed on being used and is naturally purified through the water cycle. And it isn’t going anywhere either.

    Water scarcity is a man-made problem all right, but it can be solved if we allow water to be a private commodity that can be traded. To begin with, water resources including ground-water, rivers and lakes should not be free for all. You should have to pay for using it. This act alone will spur not just enlightened consumption but will also ensure private initiatives to increase our supply of water. Not only will companies invent newer technologies to conserve water, but also actively invest in rain-water harvesting, water recycling, desalination technologies like advanced and cheaper reverse osmosis techniques etc. They will also build better irrigation technologies. All this will help the future generations who will live in a world with more fresh water, not less, thanks to all these technologies we are developing today. But if we decide to “conserve” water and use less, then why would anybody invest in generating more fresh water?

    Currently the Government builds irrigation canals but it doesn’t charge their primary consumers i.e. farmers, for the water used.One of the greatest wasters of fresh water in India is not Coca Cola but the poor, uneducated Indian farmer. It’s politically incorrect to blame them, but sadly it is true. Industries use a fraction of water the farmers use in relation to the value of goods produced. I’m not blaming the farmers as they often are not educated nor can afford to use advanced water conservation techniques (like those Israel uses). But the fact stands, that they deplete water resources by over using groundwater and lakes rather carelessly. Corporate farming can solve many of these issues as large firms will be able to employ high tech methods, build their own irrigation facilities and manage their own water resources in an optimal fashion. But more importantly, they will have to pay for the water they use from lakes, ground and rivers. They will be under far more scrutiny and will have to adhere to higher standards of accountability thanks to all the NGOs and civil groups we have.

    If any commodity is being wasted, see who is paying for it. If you price something at nothing, people value it at nothing.

    • Meera

      Anil, first of all I disagree with your point of water isn’t going anywhere. There are several areas that were previously water rich and now remain parched.
      Secondly, you do agree that water scarcity is a man made problem so why shdnt redemption come from within. We have to learn to use water judiciously but that is not the only solution. See point abt funding better water management policies, legislatures and initiatives.
      Thirdly, I don’t think everybody can AFFORD to pay for water… Think about a person in a village who already walks a good 20kms to fetch water, now you want them to pay as well? Unfortunately, water is not freely available to them like us… So several facets need to be addressed here in India before we privatize or start trading water.

      Glad to hear your views. Keep reading 🙂

      • Anil

        Like I said above, the water molecules are not escaping the earth’s biosphere nor are they being destroyed and turned into some other compounds ( like gasoline ). They are simply becoming dirt and salty.Also, we do have many technologies for purifying them. But if you keep ground and surface water free for all, then nobody is going to buy those technologies. After all, why invest in a desalinization plant or rainwater harvesting when you can simply bore a well and use up the water table?

        Legislation and water management programmes may help but they will not be very effective since at the core of it, the users of water are not paying any cost for using or wasting it. Also, we have to keep things in perspective. Domestic usage of water has become significant but agriculture uses and wastes much more water.

        And coming to the last point, it’s wrong to keep water free just because some people can’t afford to pay. If we go by the “poor people can’t afford it” logic, then we’d have to keep food grains, vegetables, electricity, oil etc. all free as well. Take the case if food grains are made free for all. Would anybody grow wheat or rice anymore? If natural oil was made free, then who would build oil wells or refineries? Same is the case with water. And people in cities and towns do pay monthly water bills, so the idea of paying for water is not so far-fetched.

        As for your scenario, in the short term that villager will be affected, but privatizing water resources will also ensure that some private entity will build rain-water harvesting and/or pipelines and irrigation facilities closer to those villages since they can hope to make to make a profit. Right now, that village is suffering because they don’t have any water resources close-by. That can only change if someone builds some means of water delivery, since the water isn’t going to spring out of nowhere. We can either sit and wait till the government does something (which still won’t address the water wastage issue) or let some entity develop a rainwater harvesting plant or a pipeline. Of course the entity building it will have to sell water at a rate that is affordable enough to dissuade villagers from going elsewhere to get the water.

        • Meera

          Good point! Am not saying that conservation or free for all is the only solution. It is part of the solution… Like how we are frugal with spending money itself. If your bank balance was dying out you will actively work towards increasing it but in the meantime you will be miserly… Two approaches that shd support and complement each other…
          Again agricultural industrial wastage is a good point and there is plenty of room for improvement there.
          Your idea of privatizing water resources and getting to pay for it will work if the intent and implementation is straightforward. In our country unless there is a legislature(not govt) in place, it’s really tough to see improvements or success stories. But within our ecosystems we can bring abt innovation to guide citizens like the residents of ittina.