The next war ripping across continents may well be triggered by water scarcity. Already a
third of the world is suffering from water shortages. Ironically, rainfall has been adequate.
The water is there. But what has gone awry is its management. Water scarcity in Asia and
Australia alone affects a fourth of the world’s population and is triggered by over-usage
whereas in Africa, it is lack of adequate infrastructure that wreaks havoc.
Water scarcity around the world has come about primarily due to quintessentially wasteful
practices that have seeped into present-day agriculture which sadly mops up 80% of fresh
water. Over the past 100 years, water usage has gone up by six times globally, and is
threatening to double again by the year 2050, driven mainly by demands of irrigation and
increased agricultural activities. Current methods of irrigation will have to be urgently
revisited and more efficient means reinvented. Problems of water scarcity can best be
addressed by better efficiency in its utilisation, recycling, pricing of water (and the electricity
used for lifting and conveying the water) where not already in vogue, transportation without
losses, leaks and pilferage, and through education of the perils of the dangers to all humanity
that is presently straining at the tethers due to the current reckless abandon with which it has
Interestingly rich nations like Australia are not immune to water scarcity. An urban
Australian on the average trashes 300 litres of water daily and the European notches 200
litres, while the sub-Saharan African makes do with less than 20 litres a day. On the other
side, one never ceases to marvel at Israel, which has truly mastered the art and science of
water and its sustainable utilisation, conservation and augmentation. For a country that
receives a best average rainfall of about 700 mm annually (in the Zefat region in the northern
mountainous terrain), its agricultural productivity puts to shame any other agricultural
economy. Here, efficiency of farm production is calibrated against water used for irrigation
and a deterrent placed on its wastage.
With agriculture being the main culprit for abysmal water scarcity, one should look up to
advances in genetic engineering that has notched a few successes in ameliorating this acute
paucity of water by suitably altering the plant’s architecture, reduced need for water through
modifications of internal anatomy and adjustments of crop physiology, besides enabling
plants to survive and succeed in saline, salty and harsh environments.
Improving the efficiency of agricultural production and water use are fundamental to any
blueprint for a sustainable and equitable growth. The Murray-Darling that runs through
Australian agricultural heartland has been steadily receding, triggered in part by an
unprecedented string of droughts and exasperated by incessant siphoning for irrigation
purposes. The Mekong, running through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam is another
startling example of how a once life-sustaining force could threaten the very communities
that it once helped found and nurture.
Nearer at home the muffled rumblings that one hears from time to time in some high-fluted
national seminar where the wind bags wax eloquently of the virtues of linking rivers to ward
off a cataclysmic disaster in the making is all hog wash. The idea of ‘linking rivers’ is a
dated notion, tracing its origins to Sir Arthur Cotton in the 19th century. Akin to Captain
Dastur’s ‘Garland Canal’, Dr K L Rao’s proposal of a Ganga-Cauvery Link was another
idea that was just as handsomely popular as it was ridiculously impractical! Rao’s plan
envisaged the link to take off near Patna, pass through the basins of the Sone, Narmada,
Tapi, Godavari, Krishna and Pennar rivers before joining the Cauvery upstream of the...