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  • Arjun Thapan



Politicians are not students of history; the hankering for contemporary pelf and power overwhelms any innate, but remote, desire to learn from the past. If they were, they might have noticed that 10 civilizations collapsed not because of the ravages of war but because of the lack of water. These were:

i. The Akkadian Empire in Syria – 2193 BC

ii. The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt – 2200 BC

iii. The Late Bronze Age Civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean – 1300 BC

iv. The Mayan Civilization, Mexico – 250-900 AD

v. The Tang Dynasty, China – 700-907 AD

vi. The Tiwanaku Empire in the Lake Titicaca area (Bolivia) – 300-1000 AD

vii. The Ancestral Puebloan Culture (in the southwest United States) – 1000-1100 AD

viii. The Khmer Empire of Angkor, modern Cambodia) – 802-1431 AD

ix. The Ming Dynasty, China – 1368-1644 AD

x. Modern Syria

The 7 graphics – see - published by the World Resources Institute earlier this month paints a frightening picture of the world’s water. It’s not that we were unaware of these trends – we were, but these graphics serve a useful reminder of our precarious water security.

Agriculture remains the most thirsty and least efficient sector in terms of water use, certainly in developing Asia. And if governments are unwilling to radically reform irrigated agriculture and the burgeoning free water and power subsidies, they might at least consider dealing with the problem of food waste – this accounts for a conservative 40% of all produce; saving half would mean a sizeable reduction in water consumed by agriculture.

All of Asia, with the exception of Myanmar and Laos, but including large parts of central and west Asia, is highly water stressed. And it’s not going to get any better with impacts of climate change already showing up in myriad ways.

Thermal power plants constitute 81% of the world’s energy supply. 47%, or nearly half this capacity, is located in highly water stressed areas; in India, 40% of its thermal power capacity is in areas that are gripped with acute water scarcity. Power plants have been switched off for as long as 3 years.

Water for municipal use is faring no better. There are Cape Towns aplenty. Manila is in the midst of an acute crisis; so is Bangalore in India. Karachi, in Pakistan, fares no better. And to think that Manila contributes 38% of the Philippines GDP; Bangalore is South Asia’s IT capital; and Karachi is Pakistan’s financial center, tells us that only we, the lesser mortals, believe in water security as a sine qua non of economic growth and social stability – politicians have different agendas.

How do we address the water anarchy that is holding back Asia’s drive in its quest for sustainable prosperity? Large gatherings of the water elite get us nowhere. Summits of water leaders are bereft of leadership. It is time to think of solutions at local level. If water utilities were to strive for operating efficiencies (successfully attempted by a handful), if communities were to curb demand, if farmers were to move to micro irrigation in large numbers, and if renewable energy was to supplant thermal power in large measure, we might see the first green shoots of sustainable water use.

Might these wishes be worth striving for – partly for our sake, but more for the generations that will inevitably follow? To adapt an aphorism – if we see wishes as horses, beggars will ride!

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