Water, water nowhere

  • As an indispensable resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, water could potentially be a source of conflict
- Rahul Karki
Water, water nowhere

Jun 30, 2014-

Water is indispensable for human survival. Beyond biological reasons, water also has spiritual value where almost all religions have their own interpretation regarding its significance. Water is considered a life giving, sustaining and purifying element.

A resource holding multiple values, water has historically been the cause of brewing tensions between nations, within nations and even between cities. These conflicts have taken various forms, ranging from territorial disputes to wars. With rising environmental, economic and population pressure on water resources, more conflict over this resource can be anticipated in the years to come.  

Not many drops to drink

A resource in itself may not fuel conflict. However, when a variety of users co-exist, conflicting inte-rests are bound to emerge over the resource. For instance, industries, power generation, drinking and irrigation all require water from the source but involve diverse actors and interests.  

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Methinkot VDC in Kavre district. I learned that a number of people had left their lands and homes abandoned. The push factor was water scarcity. After an interaction with the villagers, I came to know that people had migrated to the lowlands to avoid walking hours just to fetch water.

Similarly, living in Kathmandu wasn’t too difficult a decade ago but now, the sight of hundreds of people lined up to fetch a gallon of water from a public tap is common. With three million people demanding roughly 320 million litres of water a day, and supply falling short by more than half, Kathmandu is parched. Studies have shown that merely 59 out of 313 stone spouts in Kathmandu are running. With the highest decadal population growth of more than 60 percent, the Kathmandu valley has no option other than to wait for the fabled Melamchi water to run through its pipes. But the fear is that by the time Melamchi finally arrives, the demand will have exceeded supply.

Water bodies have played a crucial role in the relationship between nations. Nations and peoples have fought for water for years and many international laws have been drafted to resolve such crises. One example of such a conflict would be the Indo-China dispute over the Brahmaputra dam. With China’s plan to dam Brahmaputra, India’s North-East region, which depends on its waters, will be parched. Another dam construction on the Mekong river by China has left downstream countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam reeling. In many cases, the issue of water can aggravate bitter relations. Water has become a source of power play between regional superpowers. For instance, the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands has long simmered.

Conserving water

The fundamental solution to any resource scarcity would be to use it rationally and not waste it. Some adaptive principles adopted to overcome the impacts of climate change give us an innovative way to handle extreme situations. Construction of recharge ponds, rainwater harvesting, tree plantation, recharge of ground water and drip irrigation are some initiatives that could be replicated in Nepal and elsewhere. Reusing kitchen wastewater in home gardens doesn’t require a technical solution. Not only will this help reduce water usage but will also help people adapt to worst case scenarios that extreme weather events can bring about. There are many such traditional solutions that people have been practicing to overcome crisis situations that need to be acknowledged, practiced and scaled out.

Rehabilitation of degraded lands to forests has shown positive effects on water availability. A former chairperson of the Rajratna Buffer Zone Community Forest of Nawalparasi said that the flow of water, which had once declined, had revived due to the restoration of the forest. Research has demonstrated the role of forests in restoring hydrological systems. Acknowledging this, there is a need for tree plantation, especially in areas with declining forest cover. An emerging market mechanism in the name of Payment for Ecosystem Services has been adopted in several countries to counter a looming environmental crisis. This simply involves incentivising local resource managers to conserve and enhance ecosystem services (water, in this case). These processes can have dual benefits—enhanced water flow and livelihood support for local communities.

Where water has become the cause of trans-boundary conflict, it can also be a medium for cooperation. Water scarcity is a common issue and a cooperative effort to restore and regenerate water sources can be an agenda that can bring nations together. Though this needs to be worked out at a higher policy level, a simple change in the attitude of political leaders and bureaucrats can go a long way.    

Karki is a researcher at ForestAction Nepal


Published: 01-07-2014 09:12

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