Not a drop to waste

THE world's earliest civilisations began on the banks of rivers. With time, this became an accepted phenomenon as water was essential to sustain human habitat. Unfortunately, water has been overused and abused across the world irrespective of the economic status of the region.

Take, for instance, Europe. Around 60 per cent of European countries exploit groundwater and this figure is expected to rise. The situation is no better in the US where water extraction increases by 15 per cent per annum. Cities in these industrialised countries are now paying the price for failing to sustain the sources of fresh water, thus speeding up the process of destruction.

A report by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and World Water Vision titled Water and Nature: Freshwater and Related Ecosystems - The Source of Life and the Responsibility of All, presents a grim scenario for Europe and North America. The report states that the threat posed to groundwater by nitrogen and phosphorous due to excessive use of fertilisers will continue to form 'chemical time bombs'.

According to the report, by the year 2025, withdrawal of water in both these regions of the globe will increase by 18 per cent. The reasons for this increase being the growth in economy and consumption patterns and the change in lifestyles, besides other factors. Going by this prediction, freshwater sources and related ecosystems will remain under tremendous pressure due to increased rate of consumption. This will in turn cause severe damage to natural habitats.

"It is freshwater, especially the water right under our feet, that is the lifeblood of cities," points out Molly O' Meara, a research associate with the Worldwatch Institute, a research organisation based in Washington DC. Unfortunately, the "lifeblood" has been over exploited and with half the world's population expected to live in cities by 2006 - according to a report by the United Nations (UN) - the crisis is yet to mount.

While nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilisers and manure will continue to be present in the soil, they will also contaminate the groundwater. This contamination will persist long after the water is released from underground to the surface. "Once the groundwater is polluted, it is costly and often impossible to clean up the water in the aquifers," says O' Meara, and "importing water from elsewhere can also be tremendously expensive," she adds.

Presence of pollutants in surface water will result in the proliferation of many invading plant species causing a change in the ecosystem and eventually a decline in the biological diversity of freshwater. This is one of the most serious problems confronting the developed countries, particularly Europe and North America, and is bound to have disastrous effects. Such disruptions in the ecosystem due to pollution of freshwater will also greatly affect the health of human beings, animals and plants, to the extent that "large-scale social and economic repercussions will be manifested," states the IUCN report. Worse still, rather than the polluters, it will be the consumers who will have to pay the price for water pollution and the eventual consequences.

Decline in freshwater habitats will also have a great impact on tourism. The report states that those deprived of water will be the "disenfranchised group and the natural environments" and also those who will be unable to get legal protection. On the other hand, developing nations will continue to be recipients of food and products laden with pesticides and genetically modified seeds, and immigrants from these countries will constitute the main labour force.
EUROPE WATER PROBLEMS WILL PERSIST: In Europe, despite all the progressive measures taken to combat water pollution, the menace will continue to grow. According to the IUCN report, the expected 1.5 per cent growth per annum in economy would be another contributor to environmental degradation.

It predicts further deterioration in the condition of water in Europe. The northwest, and lately south and central parts, of Europe have been deeply affected by nitrogen-polluted surface and groundwater. The IUCN report predicts that while nitrogen present in drinking water will continue to exceed the international health standards, acidification will pollute many of the rivers in Europe, particularly the central and northern regions.

To make matters worse, pollutants such as heavy metals, hydrocarbons and pesticides, particularly the persistent organic pesticides (POPs), will continue to pollute and remain high in concentration, causing a decline in the water quality in most of the rivers of Europe by 2025. Around 60 per cent of the European countries over-exploit their groundwater resources and its abstraction is expected to increase from 455 to 559 cubic kilometres (km3) per year. The report concludes that central Europe would have to meet both the demands of industrial development (to sustain economic growth) and also that of the environment (to maintain water resources which is required for economic growth).

'SEWER OF EUROPE': Besides groundwater, the rivers too have suffered due to extensive development activities. A case in point is the Rhine river. With a large number of industries along its catchment area, the ecosystem of the Rhine has deteriorated to such an extent that it was been termed the "sewer of Europe".

Rhine is Europe's most important waterway. Yet polluting industries like coal, refineries, nuclear power stations, chemical industries, paper and cardboard industries line the river basin. Besides, water from this catchment area is also used for agriculture. In the 1970s, the concentration of industrial pollutants being dumped into the river was particularly high. Deposits from coalmines, that form the riverbeds and river terraces in the tributaries, are major contaminants of the Rhine.

According to the World Water Vision report, despite numerous management and mitigation activities comprising state-of-the-art technology, instances of flooding will increase. This will particularly be at the lower stretches of the Rhine where floods will increase by five to eight per cent by 2050.

Expansion of urban and industrial areas into the floodplain is one of the main reasons for this increasing menace. At the same time, with decrease in cultivable land, agricultural demands along the river basin will increase.

DEGRADING RESOURCES: In the US - where the present usage of water is higher than any other country in terms of per capita - high living costs and population growth will continue to increase the demand for good quality water. Moreover, extraction of water - mainly for power generation, agriculture and domestic use - is expected to increase by 15 per cent per year.

"The US model of spread-out urban development worsens water problems," O' Meara explains, adding, "roads and parking lots prevent water from seeping into the ground to recharge underground supplies, while sewers and channels direct rainwater into rivers and streams, causing more severe floods."

The report by World Water Vision predicts an equally grim scenario for the US by 2025. Like Europe, the quality of surface and groundwater in North America will continue to be polluted by run-off and infiltration from pesticides, herbicide and heavy metals.

Moreover, intensive use of the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains region of the US for irrigation could lead to over-extraction. A study of the area in mid-1982 reported the possibility of a catastrophe around 2020. The aquifer feeds over 20 per cent of the irrigated lands of the US and also the farmland that supplies almost half of US beef. "That the water of the Ogallala will, at some point, simply run out is a given fact," states Marq De Villiers in the book Water Wars: Is the world's water running out? He suggests that the only way out is "rigorous conservation and virtual abandonment" of the aquifer by the six states around it.

Setting an example
Under the circumstances, "strong leadership is essential for a change to be brought about," suggests the IUCN report. Lessons can be learnt from the ministers of Rhine who took initiatives in improving the condition of the river soon after the Sandoz disaster. In November 1, 1986, a fire broke out in the giant Swiss chemical company releasing huge quantities of toxic pesticides, fungicides, dyes, heavy metals and two tonnes of mercury that flowed into the Rhine.

This incident killed at least a million fish and hundreds of other animals along the banks of the river that drank water from it. "It was the worst case of chemical contamination of a European river," says Bertram Mueller, a hydrologist at the International Commission for the Protection of Rhine. This incident was the turning point.

In an emergency meeting, the ministers formed the Rhine Action Programme (RAP) with the objective to get migrating fish that spawned in the upper reaches to return. Besides this, numerous other anti-pollution measures were taken. Since then, a lot of changes have been noticed: the quality of water in the Rhine and its tributaries has improved and the oxygen level has recovered. The river experienced such a major rejuvenation that Angela Merkel, then environment minister of Germany, had said, "The rebirth of the Rhine... has to count as one of the great environmental success stories of the century."

However, revival of the Rhine clearly indicates that pollution of surface and groundwater can be contained if the authorities embark on the task with unwavering determination.

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