Harsh reality

Rich or poor. The story is the same in every country. Those who respect water will always have a steady supply

Published: Sunday 28 February 1999

T he best things in life don't come free. Today clean air and clean drinking water all come at a price. For a person living in a Delhi slum 30 litres of water a day is all one can expect. The sole source of water is either a municipal tanker or a tap shared by at least 50 other families. The queue for water is a daily affair.

For someone living in a posh Delhi colony the daily quest for water yields much more than 30 litres. Some residents actually enjoy more than 300 litres a day per person, depending on the area where they live. A filter takes care of their drinking water needs by weeding out harmful bacteria from the precious liquid. There are at least five to 15 taps per family depending on the size of the accommodation.

Water is also something we take for granted. Because we see it everywhere. It falls like manna from the heavens. It flows out from the bathroom faucet. It flows down the neighbourhood drain and every city normally has a river nearby. What we cannot see is the quality of water or the hardships faced by people where the water resource has been degraded.

When we buy a product we do not pause to consider that it may have been produced at a very high environmental cost. A shirt produced in a dyeing unit in south India may have contributed to the pollution of a river there. Effluents from a chemicals unit may have poisoned the groundwater in a city or a village and we are paying to do our bit to keep up that poisoning. We also take the quality of water for granted. Even though we know that thousands are forced to consume water laden with arsenic or fluoride. There is therefore no sense of panic. The general feeling is that bad drinking water is like a car accident. It can happen to the person next door but not to me. But is that true?

As a nation -- with some rare exceptions -- we have not learnt to respect water as a scarce commodity. This respect for water is not reflected in any of our rules, byelaws or regulations pertaining to water use. There have, however, been rare exceptions where water conservation and social planning have changed the ecosystem in villages in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.

This respect for water is not something which has to be practised in a poor country like India. As a nation we have a lot to learn from our past and a lot to learn from those who have today -- regardless of their industrial prosperity -- learnt to respect water as a scarce commodity. We have a lot to learn from the residents of the Californian city of Santa Barbara in the us . They changed their lifestyle to conserve water and succeeded to such an extent that a new desalination plant has remained on standby ever since it was built. This story has a message for us.

The most severe drought that Santa Barbara had ever known stalked the region between 1986 and 1992. The shortfall of water reached 45 per cent in 1990. Had the drought continued it was projected that the shortfall might have reached around 80 per cent. Traditionally the region gets around 90 per cent of its water from groundwater supplies. Dry periods are normally followed by a year of heavy rainfall that fills reservoirs completely. However, when the regional reservoir at lake Cachuma came down to half its capacity there was a sense of panic. The city authorities embarked upon a two-fold plan. One, to educate people about the crisis and, two -- to make sure that everyone took the idea seriously that water was a scarce commodity -- to introduce a new pricing mechanism. This new pricing mechanism would actually penalise those who consumed more and reward those who consumed less.

The authorities proposed an inverted pyramid of tariff for all domestic properties. Heavy users would be charged disproportionately higher rates than those who used small amounts. As a result landlords saw their water bills jump. Therefore the only way out for them was to pass on the buck -- in this case the bill -- to the tenants. Once people had to pay for their own water the bills immediately dropped.

Hotels were also affected. Therefore, the only option was to cut down on conspicuous consumption. Special heads were attached to all showers. Low flow toilet cisterns became the order of the day and some hotels, like the Simpson House Inn, even went in for underground watering for its extensive gardens.

The next stage of the campaign to save water came into effect. The public works department published a series of leaflets and booklets under a scheme entitled 'the new water ethic'. This was to make the average citizen aware of the nature of the problem.

While the pricing system, a system which penalised large users, was kept in place, the massive price rises were reversed two years later. This served as an incentive to customers to keep their consumption low. The message that the authorities in Santa Barbara wanted to give was that water is a scarce commodity. And if the state undertakes to supply it, it can only supply what is available. The pricing mechanism succeeded because it fixed a responsibility upon each individual to judiciously use water. Or pay a price.

Unfortunately when the state supplies water in India the people are never made to realise that it is a scarce resource. The result is that water is mined. The best is mined first and then the quality goes down. Which is exactly what is happening.

"Carbon sinks, such as forestry plantations, could be incorporated into an emissions trading system by allocating credits for the amount of carbon the plants store. Plantation operators could sell these credits in an emission trading system," said Roslyn Walker of the Australian Greenhouse Office.

However, the issues are not as simple as they are made out to be. Allocation of permits on a historical basis, differentiation in allocation of permits depending on the company, and a government's right to sell its permits to the highest bidder are among the much-debated and still-unresolved issues.

There has been a growing interest in ghg emissions trading for many years but stockholders have not been satisfied with the information they have been receiving so far. An Emissions Trading Forum had been set up in Sydney in 1997 to keep its members informed of independent and objective information on policy and market matters like trading arrangements which would affect their businesses.

Since the Kyoto Protocol, a number of countries, notably the us , Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and Russia, have all continued to promote international emissions trading actively. These countries have even formed a coalition called the "umbrella group" and are now working together to get the approach ratified by the rest of the world in the future climate meetings.

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