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Water: A Boon or Curse?
Life on earth depends primarily on water. May it be for human beings, or for ecosystems like forests and other organisms in all forms of life. The change in climate will dramatically affect the world's fresh water supply which comes in form of rain and snow. Rainfall will increase in some places, bringing floods and will decrease in others, possibly bringing droughts. It could potentially affect to such an extent where conflicts between nations would be inevitable, over water resources. Some areas of the world would suffer from too much water, whereas others would face the scarcity. Thus change in world's water balance would be a matter of universal concern.

Climate change will bring about imbalance in both, quality and quantity of water. The pace of water cycle will speed up, making evaporation more rapid, leading to intense storms and floods. It will also affect the timing of rainfall, the dry spells in between as well as quantity of down pour, thus profoundly affecting humans and other life forms. On one hand wildlife behaviour will change to adapt to the changing habitat and on the other, crop pattern and crop yield will be affected. Scarcity of water will lead to disputes among groups such as farmers, industries and household users. This secondary effect of climate change would as well have a great impact as much as its direct effect. As it is a fundamental source to all economic activities, from agriculture to tourism, the pressure will be felt by people world over, which will be experienced in different ways depending upon regional situation. Scientists are working on different models to understand where changes are most likely to occur. According to the study, increased rainfall and flooding will be seen across northern Europe, Canada, Alaska and northern Asia. Whereas countries like Indonesia and others in southern parts will grow drier. With increasing drought situation the top soil, which nourishes the plants, would go drier and get blown away, permanently damaging the land. According to one report China has lost around 3.5 million acres of forest and cropland being turned into desert within last half century alone. Increase in infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever would be at rise in tropical regions with rise in temperature and increase in rainfall, both of them being a favourable condition for mosquitoes to thrive. It will not only affect human beings but the cattle population as well, which is a source of livelihood to many. Increased temperature in fresh as well as salt water stimulates growth of harmful algae where bacteria thrive which can cause health problems.

Ecosystems thus have been pushed out of balance. In the Himalayas snow melting fills dozens of lakes, which is a source of fresh water to villages in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. With average annual temperature gradually rising each year since last two decade, these lakes are getting increased amount of water with more and more glaciers melting. Adding to this the water is being tapped to get the supply of water to the hydroelectric plants which have been built over the rivers flowing from these glacial lakes. With snow melting fast, these lakes are getting overfilled, posing threat of bursting their banks. United Nations Environment Programme has identified over two dozen of such lakes in Nepal and an equal number in Bhutan that are in immediate danger of bursting. The other forces which may cause such damage is disasters like earthquakes, avalanches and landslides. Landslides are more destructive in mountainous regions and specially deforested areas, where the plants no longer hold the soil in place. Once a slope is weakened it becomes vulnerable to any natural calamites. The worst reported case of landslide disaster was in Venezuela, where within a span of five years since year 2000 with just two landslide incidences over 20000 people were killed and over 5 lakh people were left homeless.

In contrast many of the southern countries are likely to experience abnormally dry conditions. A peculiar example is that of Australia which has become more susceptible to severe droughts. The rainfall will continue to decrease and at the same time temperatures will continue to rise. The climate models which are being studied also suggests that places like southern Africa, Central Asia and the Mediterranean region would experience  severe droughts. In Southeast Asia the monsoon is expected to become weaker in western region and at the same time will increase in the east.

Although the true desert area of the world covers 7% of the earth, it is estimated that around 30% of the land is at risk of becoming uninhabitable as it is either becoming drier or due to advancement of deserts. United Nations warns that livelihood of over 10 lakh people in 100 countries is at a risk due to increasing deserts as it will no longer support farming or grazing. Though there are many natural reasons of the land becoming drier, the main cause is again human induced. The reason being over grazing, over cultivation and overuse of water, beyond the capacity which nature can replace.

Facts about Fresh Water : Water is termed as universal solvent. This fact itself makes it the most susceptible to its abuse; pollution! It is estimated that on global average four out of ten people lack access to safe drinking water. People, who have access to safe drinking water, take it for granted. The price city dwellers pay for it is very negligible. They are so much used to abuse it by the way of casually flushing the expensive treated water down the toilet, taking shower and tub baths, cleaning vehicles, watering the lawns and gardens that it seems they bother the least.

The irony of it can be best seen in the city of Mumbai or for that matter in any metros, where the water is brought by huge pumping stations from water resources around 100 kms away from the city. It is then treated and again pumped to the water tanks around places. The pumping continues through the network of pipelines to the ground storage tanks of building complexes from where it is lifted to overhead tanks placed above multistoried ever rising sky scrapers. It is brought back to the ground floor apartment where 15 liter of valuable treated potable water is used to flush few ml. of urination.


A vast amount of freshwater is being lost as a result of pollution, over irrigation, poor land-use practices and due to domestic and industrial wastage. Already in most part of the world, water supplies do not meet the need of the ever growing population. Women and children in rural areas spend a considerable amount of time each day to procure water from community wells.

Their again lies a strange contrast to this water shortage. A peculiar example is Canada, which holds about 20% of the freshwater stocks of the world and increasing due to melting of ice. In the late 1990's Europe's demand for water exceeded supply, where few entrepreneurs from Canada saw it as an opportunity. A number of companies were formed to export water through tanker ships. At first their governments were receptive as bulk water shipments to Asia or Europe would have generated revenue, profits and employment for some. But soon people realized the danger within and government had to withdraw permit at the backdrop of public outcry against bulk water exports. The critics were worried that once the water exports were opened it would become, in legal term, a commodity. And under International Trade Agreements it would be difficult to stop this common resource being going out of their hand.

Water has been a source of conflict for centuries, but the recent disputes are becoming more violent as seen in Afghanistan, India, China and the Middle East, where clashes over water use and allocation have resulted in riots. As the world population continues to grow, the U.N. predicts that the world will face severe water shortage by year 2025. A striking example of water shortage is Lake Chad, in West Africa which supplies fresh water to 2crore people in four countries - Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. The satellite images prove that it has it has reduced to 5% of its original size of 25,000 sq. kms. It is estimated that every year around 15 million acres of land are lost to desertification worldwide.

Changing water supplies threaten biodiversity. Water diverted for agriculture, hydropower or cities affects animal and plant life which is dependent on water. Declining and shifting of water supplies due to climate change increase pressures on already stressed wildlife. The effects of climate change have tremendous implications on global biodiversity. The stress can be seen on 34 biodiversity hotspots which cover just 2.3% of the earth’s surface but is the home for almost half of the total species of plants and over a third of animals, birds and amphibians of the world.

Facts about Sea Water : With the rising sea level, the most dramatic effect will be on world's coastal regions. It is estimated that around 40% of the world’s entire population live within 100km of the coastline. Thirteen of the world's twenty largest cities are situated on the coast. The trend of people migrating to such commercial hubs is always on rise for better employment opportunities. This means that more and more people and property will be at risk. Higher sea levels will bring more destructive storms. More and more islands will disappear under waves.

The rise in sea level is due to two primary factors. One, obviously due to melting of glaciers and adding of water and the other is the thermal effect. When temperature of water increases, like most material things it expands which results in increase in volume though not the total mass. Effects of rising sea world result in loss of agriculture land and the traditional crops as the soil will be flooded by saltwater. Marshes and wetlands which act as a valuable natural filtration will disappear. With reckless reclaiming of land by unabated of land by cutting and clearing of mangroves which acts as a natural barrier that land itself will be vulnerable and exposed to flooding.

Coral reefs and mangroves are the most massive coastal protection structures in the world. They cause wave to break offshore, there by reducing damage caused by erosion due to large waves. The tropical cyclone that hit Orissa in 1999 underlines the value of coral reef. The section of the coast that had no protection from coral reefs lost considerably more. This cyclone also helped to demonstrate the value of mangroves. They served as a coastal buffer by reducing current, wind and wave action.  It is proved that mangroves are more effective in protecting coast lives from erosion than the more expensive artificial concrete barriers normally used now a days. The cyclone that hit Orissa washed away entire villages, killing roughly 10000 people but the settlements around village Bhitarkanika protected by the second largest mangrove in the world were largely left untouched.

Another potentially devastating effect of rising sea levels is contamination of farmlands & drinking water by sea water. The aftermath of the giant tsunami of 2004 poisoned the soils of many agricultural lands, making them useless for crops. Thousands of wells were filled with salt water in Indonesia, Thailand, Srilanka and others. The Sunder bans lying in the delta of Ganga and Bramhaputra are the site of most extensive mangroves in the world. Their future is at stake due to alarming rise of sea level at around 1.2 inches per year several times more than average global rate. Several islands have already disappeared leaving thousands homeless. The Bengal tiger also faces a grim future due to these changes and due to starvation. This is a result of vanishing of its natural prey of Sambar, Deer and Gaur etc. They have now turned to prey on humans.

Thus we can see that the imbalance of nature and environment due to inconsiderate human activities in quest to make our life more and more comfortable through so called luxuries are actually inviting more complex situation, creating disturbances in nature cycle. And as scholar Gleick puts it- "We must rethink, we no longer live in a world in which rivers can be endlessly dammed and aquifers relentlessly pumped ecosystems ruthlessly impoverished. We have to focus on how to conserve water and how to use the new found water".


* Statistics and information compiled from various sources and news.


   
 
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