World Water Week: On the importance of balancing the water budget

We need to de-average our water situation and approach it with nuance. We need water numeracy to understand what adequate means—at the right time, place, and kind (only freshwater is effectively relevant)

Updated: Aug 23, 2023 09:49:14 AM UTC
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The subject of budgets conjures up images of economists and finance experts going through complex numbers. At a political level, a whole session of Parliament is called the Budget Session, and the sanctity is that even a single rupee of public funds cannot be spent without being approved by the Parliament. Is it time to ask the same question about how we use water?

In 1989, the Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark developed the water stress indicator based on the amount of renewable freshwater available in a region for each person each year. Water stress arises when demand exceeds the quantity available from water resources in an area during a specific period. The core idea is that water can be quantified, measured, and compared across different areas. India has 18 percent of the world's population but only 4 percent of its water resources, making it among the most water-stressed countries in the world. This may be news for a society that perceives water as a free and bountiful gift of nature that we can use as much we please. The just published WRI reports place India as the most water-stressed large country in the world, and that should be enough for us to sit up and re-think.

Water numeracy

Water numeracy involves mapping all its sources of fresh, usable water, accounting for the flow they may expect from these, and then planning how to consume that water judiciously. In simple terms, it means ensuring an adequate supply of water on the one hand and using it more efficiently on the other. An effective way to achieve this is to create a water budget.

Like a household budget, a water budget lays out water earnings and expenditures for the entire year. It works like a bank passbook. For instance, you have Rs 100 in your bank account and expect an income of Rs 50. You decide how much of this Rs 150 you want to spend and how much you want to keep in reserve for the next cycle. You can overdraw your water budget just as you overdraw your account, but only up to a limit that you're able to square off.

Such an exercise increases awareness in a community about how to quantify its water assets and expected inflow. We need water numeracy so a state, a region, or a village can map its water resources against its water consumption and make it more efficient. The Ministry of Jal Shakti’s water body census earlier this year was a big step towards water numeracy.

The truth about our water situation often gets lost in totals and averages. As a nation, we receive adequate rainfall. However, almost all of it falls within a narrow band of two months—with a geographical dispersion that is hard to get right. This year, while parts of North India have seen excessive rain, large parts of the East are at least 20 percent deficient.

The deserts of Rajasthan may evoke scarcity of water, and the lush fields of Punjab, a surfeit of it. Both visuals mask the fundamental nature of water stress. A pocket in Rajasthan may have a lower water supply but cropping and lifestyle in that location may be designed for lower consumption. On the other hand, the farms in Punjab maybe be guzzling fast-depleting groundwater.

This is why we need to de-average our water situation and approach it with nuance. We need water numeracy to understand what adequate means—at the right time, place, and kind (only freshwater is effectively relevant).

Also Read- Revisiting the Indus Water Treaty: A path to sustainability and stability in the face of climate change

Fortunately, water budgeting is catching on. In April 2023, Kerala became the first state to adopt a water budget, albeit on a limited scale, to conserve water and use water in a balanced way. Every community needs to create a water budget: after all, we can only consume what we can replenish. Simple water budgets hold the key to changing India’s water future. If farmers make smart choices based on how much water they have and how much water they need, farming is likely to become long-term, sustainable, and remunerative.

As we observe World Water Week with the theme, Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World, would you like to start by making a water budget for your residential complex or office?

The writer is CEO of Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF), and co-chair of FICCI Water Mission.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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