“WATER, water, everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink” goes one of the most well-known lines in English literature. Contemporary reality, which suggests an irony well beyond the lament of the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, is compounded. Even as there is a dire shortage of potable water for billions, it is worsened by the fact that while climate change has led to unprecedented rates of rainfall and consequent flooding, several countries thus affected lack the infrastructure to store this excess water — even while being water-stressed. Recently, the UN released a major report on the global state and management of water resources. Titled The State of Climate Services 2021: Water, the research was the result of a collaborative effort between organisations including the UN World Meteorological Organisation, international development agencies and scientific institutions. Of the many sobering points it had to make was that the number of people worldwide with inadequate access to water stands currently at 2.3bn, and will top 5bn by the year 2050; in sub-Saharan Africa, females spend an estimated 40bn hours a year harvesting water; and while flooding impacted the South and Southeast Asian regions particularly badly last year, many of the countries affected — including Pakistan and India — do not have the capacity to store that extra water for later use. “We need to wake up to the looming water crisis,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas. “Time is not on our side.”

According to data, last year in India, flooding was the third deadliest event of the year; the situation in Pakistan was equally bad. Both these countries feature in a research list of 17 countries where water scarcity is “extremely high” (Pakistan is ranked at 14, and India at 13) and in which Qatar takes the first place as the world’s most water-starved country. The lesson for South Asia is as clear as it can be: given the intertwined nature of the river systems of Pakistan and India, solutions must be found and hard agreements signed to sort out points of contention such and upper- and lower-riparian rights, the methods (such as dams) to harvest water sources including rainfall and glacier-melt, and at all costs to avoid ‘water wars’ that would prove mutually ruinous. Contemporary realities must be addressed, including, perhaps, the minutiae of the Indus Waters Treaty over which India still drags its heels. As the UN warned, time is not on our side.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2021

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