Water, Water, Everywhere…

By Dr R.Neerunjun Gopee

On the occasion of World Water Day 2022 (whose theme is ‘Groundwater, making the invisible visible’), I thought it is an opportunity to reflect on some important issues that are related to water. For those of us in the developing and developed world, which includes our own country, we take it for granted that whenever we open our taps, clean potable water will flow out, barring exceptional circumstances.

Nearly 2.2 billion people in the world – almost a third of the world’s population – do not have an adequate supply of water. Pic – The Hans India

That water is essential to life is a common experience to all of us, in fact to all living beings. As far as human beings are concerned, this idea is captured wonderfully in a line by British poet, W.H.Auden: ‘Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.’

Thus, although the definitive origin of life is not yet a settled question for scientists, they are more or less agreed that it arose in water, and that indeed there can be no sentient life without water. Water is so important to our existence, forming as it does about 70% of the human body, that it would not be an exaggeration to say that ‘Water is Life’. This fundamental reality is recognized by the WHO in the eight essential components of primary health care, which are set out in the Alma-Ata Declaration and include ‘Supply of adequate safe water and sanitation.’ In a normally functioning country, this is a state responsibility.

But many countries fall short of fulfilling this responsibility, as a result of which nearly 2.2 billion people in the world – almost a third of the world’s population – do not have an adequate supply of water. And yet where water is easily available, there is much wastage of the precious liquid, both deliberately and by negligence such as not attending to leaking taps in one’s home, or delay in repairing a burst public water supply pipe, as has happened a number of times locally. On the other hand, over-use and over-exploitation of water resources combined with the increase in population are also contributing to acute water shortages in many parts of the world, no less than a water crisis – so much so that it has been predicted that in the 21st century countries may even go to war because of water.

It is to create public awareness about such problems and about the importance of water to life that the idea of International Water Day started in 1992, the year in which the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro took place. That same year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution by which 22 March of each year was declared world day for water, to be observed starting in 1993. Besides raising awareness, the day also highlights the necessary improvement for access to water, hygiene facilities, and sanitation in all countries.

Locally, it is no secret that we have been facing problems with water supply on a recurrent basis for many years, and every year they seem to get worse, at least in certain parts of the island, where exasperated consumers have frequently come out in the street to protest. The one that took place in Bambous some time back is still fresh in the memory; unfortunately, some of the protesters were arrested for simply voicing their pressing need for water. We all can empathise with them, for having also at some time or the other faced a problem of water shortage. After a few hours inconvenience can turn into acute distress, when assuaging thirst or the need to prepare food or to bathe and clean assume the proportion of urgency.

This becomes even more so if there are babies and small children to cater for, and worse still in regions where high temperatures are already causing enough stress and stretching the body’s ability to cope. In such circumstances, it is almost axiomatic that tempers and patience will get frayed, turn into exasperation and eventually eruptive anger. This is where tact and prompt action on the part of authorities are required, as well as empathy with those who are affected instead of resorting to drastic measures which only breed resentment and mistrust of authority, and this serves the cause of neither.

The problems are manifold in nature, but a well-known one which directly concerns policy is the long-standing one of the loss of water coming from Mare-aux-Vacoas reservoir due to leakage in the distribution pipes, estimated to be up to 50%. Efforts by successive governments to tackle this loss have continued to be made, to no avail. The latest such input was the budgetary allocation of Rs one billion a few years ago to deal with the problem, but alas it remains unresolved to date. Besides, with the Covid pandemic having relegated other matters in the background, of late there has not been any question put in Parliament in this regard, and the public remains in the dark when it comes to the replacement of the pipes that was planned.

Among the exceptional circumstances today, head of the list are floods, especially the flash flood variety which appears to have become more frequent in these past few years, not sparing any country, whose capacity to cope is soon overwhelmed by the sheer suddenness of the phenomenon. Climate change caused by human activity is increasingly being advanced as largely responsible. Volumes of rain which under normal circumstances fall in a period of a few weeks or a few months, depending on geographical location, pour from the skies in a matter of hours, causing havoc in built-in and residential areas. Rivers swell with their levels rising dangerously and then spill over bridges, roads and thoroughfares that get transformed in their turn into torrential rivers which carry everything as they rush onwards – debris, broken structures, vehicles, and even houses are seen floating away as was shown during the devastating tsunami in Japan some years ago.

The human factor comes into play too, as we have witnessed locally so many times – drains and canals clogged with all kinds of waste small and big: fridges, carton boxes, and other gadgets among others. And yet when the floods are over and the remedial infrastructural measures taken, it is disheartening to see that the lesson was soon forgotten when subsequent floods reveal the contribution of the same human misbehavior and insouciance.

Some months after the flash floods that occurred in Port Louis when people lost their lives, and later during reparatory works drains were found to be clogged, I witnessed something that made me despair. It was about three p.m. and I was making my way to La Chaussee via the Jardin de la Compagnie. Vendors were winding up for the day, and bin bags full of waste were simply tossed over into the big canal that passes by along the Mauritius Museum. Why don’t we display more civic sense and think of the consequences of our acts – why, on the very perpetrators to start with, let alone on their fellow citizens.

By definition flash floods are impossible to predict; otherwise, Australia, which was recently severely hit by them on the eastern side, would have been better prepared, with all the resources they command. Despite that, for example, a whole village has been completely devastated, and people have had to be relocated by the thousands, a task of enormous proportions by whatever reckoning, not to speak of the emotional aspects of such displacements from one’snested environment lost for good.

The paradox in such dire situations is that drinking water becomes scarce if not unavailable, because of damage to waterworks infrastructure and other factors. People face the conundrum of ‘Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any a Drop to Drink!’ – words used by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to describe the predicament of the ill-fated hero of his poem who was stuck on a ship in the middle of a becalmed ocean.

We are individually and collectively responsible for the sustainability of our water resources in our overall ecosystem. This is perhaps one of the important lessons to keep in mind on the occasion of World Water Day 2022.

* Published on our ePaper 25 March 2022

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