The Indian water challenge

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe
Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees, World Economic Forum
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Internationally, there is a rapidly growing problem that is not being fully acknowledged – the rate at which water is used to produce food means that in the not too distant future we will not have enough water to cope with demand. By 2030, water withdrawals will exceed natural renewal by more than 60%. Nowhere is this more of a problem than in India.

The pressing issue was highlighted in a report conducted by the Water Resources Group (WRG), of which Nestlé is a member. India’s water supplies are suffering due to the culmination of a number of factors. The country’s rapid rate of industrialization means that energy needs are increasing while the surface area on which water can be collected is on the decline. And more prosperity combined with an increase in population drives both water withdrawals for agriculture – by far the biggest water user in the country – and municipal supplies. This, coupled with an insufficient level of knowledge in terms of water-use efficiency (and leakage, in the case of municipal water), could spell disaster for India’s water future.

The WRG report, “Charting Our Water Future. Economic Frameworks to Inform Decision-making”, was able to show the orders of magnitude – of the gap and the cost to close it. However, relatively little is known about the ins and outs of India’s potential crisis. In order to encourage a greater understanding of India’s risks, it is imperative that more detailed assessments are carried out. This will require thorough studies into the impact of water shortages on socio-economic groups and geographical settings in this vast country.

More detailed studies may help to bring cohesion between a now disparate array of relevant parties. As it stands, the private sector, government and Indian public have reached no collective consensus on how to deal with the problem. If a greater understanding of the situation and the genuinely pressing concerns inherent in it were reached, it would help in a sense of urgency. This would, hopefully, lead to more open discussions and a national agreement on what exactly needs to be done.

It is essential that the private and public sectors in India realize that it is not merely agriculture that is draining water resources. A study by the Columbia Water Centre (CWC), along with Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), suggests that, after agriculture, the industrial sector in India is the second highest user of water. The study considered a range of 27 industries, including textiles, oil, retail, pharmaceuticals and food processing. It spanned differing enterprises, from the small and local to the large and international.

The study unearthed some interesting findings. It seems that there is a general awareness of the future risks of water shortage: 87% of the companies taking part in the study believe that limitations in water supply will affect their business within the next decade; and 83% cited inadequate water availability as a major risk affecting their bottom line.

The study also revealed some promising advances, with the respondents tending to agree that it is the shared responsibility of companies across sectors to work with communities and governments on for water conservation programmes. Nearly 80% of the industries surveyed said that they have already undertaken wastewater treatment and re-use, making the most of water supplies by recycling it. Plus, a large number of respondents felt that discussions on water demand management and re-use should include plant managers and employees as well as senior management.

It is imperative that the report’s positive findings are harnessed and implemented. The first logical step is to create a framework of governmental and non-governmental bodies to work together in researching and discussing water use. Once findings are made and decisions are reached, it is essential that these be communicated clearly across all sectors in India in order to ultimately develop a comprehensive strategy.

Secondly, lines of communication must be opened between specialist researchers and local businesses who truly understand the nuances of regional environments. If they work together, they will gain a far more sophisticated understanding of this complex problem.

If we move now, we may be able to divert future crisis. The Water Resources Group – already involved in a project in Karnataka, south-west India – is willing to support initial analytical efforts and further steps towards solutions in other Indian states.

Author: Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Chairman of Nestlé SA, and Chairman of the 2030 Water Resources Group

Image: A Village woman carries a container filled with drinking water supplied by the government REUTERS/Ahmad Masood


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