MY LETTER IN BUSINESS TODAY ISSUE OF 19TH JUNE 2016
Posing a Terror Threat?
This refers to your story titled The Economics of Water. Off and on we keep reading disturbing media reports like “Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war”, “Will water supplies provoke World War III”, “The next big wars will be fought over water”, hinting that the next World War could definitely be over water. Indeed, water scarcity is a global issue and needs to be top priority for governments across the world. Sometime ago, there was a media headline: “Now, a machine that produces water out of thin air?”. Eureka Forbes was reportedly test-marketing a product which, when commercially rolled out, would be the first air-water generator in India. This is the first time such a product is being indigenously built. While the company did not indicate the investment behind the project or the cost of the machine it proposes to launch, industry sources say it is likely to be priced at `90,000-1,00,000 a unit, if benchmarked against similar products available in the West. Globally, air-water generators are available for $1,500-2,000 a unit, depending on the sophistication of the technology and the amount of water it can produce. So, in short, problems are there but then innovative solutions need to be found to avert future wars. – J.S. Broca, New Delhi
The above is an edited version of my letter. Here is what I had actually written:
THE ECONOMICS OF WATER
This refers to your shocking cover story titled “The Economics of Water” (BT May 22nd 2016).
Off and on we keep reading disturbing media reports frighteningly titled: “Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war”, ” Will water supplies provoke World War III”, “The Next Big Wars Will Be Fought Over Water” hinting that the next World War could definitely be on water. Several articles have been appearing in the media from time to time, giving warnings like: “The next world war will be fought over water, not ideology or religion.” Many countries which are reported to have mismanaged their natural resources will soon find themselves unable to supply the water, in sufficient quantity, their future populations will require.
Sea water is one good and vast source of water but the process of conversion of salty water into fresh potable drinking water needs technology, resources, policy guidelines and framework country-wise and above all willingness to take quick initiatives to solve the impending water problem to quench the thirst of its teeming population.
Many technologies for desalination of sea water exist today and each has its plus and minus points. Selection of proper technology and adapting it suitably looking to the existing environmental issues and local conditions of a city or a state, is a major decision required to be taken after a detailed techno-economic feasibility and viability study is done by a panel of qualified and experienced persons.
Water scarcity is a global issue and needs top priority regional attention and management. For many coastal cities, desalination has proved to be a key problem-solving technology. To solve the impending water crisis, India too has adopted desalination, though a tad slowly. Moreover, the growth of desalination projects has been slow, mainly because of inability of pooling in the huge funds required for setting up large-capacity desalination plants. Many cities in India are located along the coast line and desalination projects can be of help but then political willingness is the million dollar question again.
One more area is Agricultural Practices. In the case of rice, a big export crop, every kilogram grown in Punjab uses 5,400 litres of water. So when that is exported, effectively so is a lot of water. If, however, the same rice was grown in West Bengal, a study by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) shows, exactly half the amount of water gets used. Yet, given that Punjab’s productivity—5.8 tonnes of paddy per hectare—is nearly 50% more than that of West Bengal, most people would argue it is better to grow rice in Punjab than in West Bengal . Once you factor in the cost of this extra water—and the electricity that goes for pumping out the water—the cost equation changes dramatically, for both the farmer as well as for the country. The equation is even worse in the case of sugarcane. Each kilogram of sugar requires 2,515 litres of water in Maharashtra—the largest producer in the country—but just 812 litres in Bihar . This is something the government needs to start factoring in. Giving per acre subsidies for growing such crops in states like Bihar and West Bengal will not only do wonders for their economy, it will also help the country save precious water.
Scientists and agricultural experts need to focus their research lenses on developing better qualities of seeds that are not only high yielding and pest resistant, but also use minimal water for cultivation and harvesting. There are frequent reports on experimentation being done by some universities in this field but unless the commercial viability of growing rice with less water is established such reports are only like the proverbial oasis in a desert! One may recall about reading a report on a new type of rice being cultivated by the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore which reportedly has many advantages over typical rice varieties — it requires less water to grow, it’s higher in protein and it emits less methane over its life cycle. Reports further confirm that this rice, which is not genetically modified but a hybrid crop, uses 60 percent less water than conventional rice crops. Interestingly, it only needs to be watered only once a week even in arid climates and can go as long as 15 days without water. Further, from a nutritional standpoint, this variety of rice has 14 to 15 percent proteins compared to seven to eight percent in conventional rice. It can also be harvested more quickly with a similar yield to conventional rice, making it ideal for feeding the country’s / world’s growing population. Sadly enough, only around five percent of rice fields are using this new type of variety for cultivation, but let us be hopeful that word about such successful experimental approaches to rice, will soon spread to more areas. Concerned authorities need to think, decide and implement an action plan to avoid future crises of water shortages.
Sometime ago there was a media headline: “Now, a machine that produces water out of thin air…”. Eureka Forbes was reportedly test marketing a product which, when commercially rolled out, would be the first air-water generator in India . Latest developments are yet to be fully known. Reportedly in July 2014, shoppers and passers-by outside Sobo Central Mall in Tardeo, south Mumbai, were greeted to an unusual sight. Perched atop an open truck was a machine no bigger than a decent-sized refrigerator that had a nozzle attached to it and a suction pipe linked to an exhaust fan at the other end. People were invited to take water (in a glass) from the nozzle, which the promoters, Eureka Forbes, makers of the Aquaguard and AquaSure brands of water purifiers, claimed was safe to drink. Shapoorji Pallonji, owner of Eureka Forbes, also the single-largest shareholder in Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata group, is test-marketing the product, called an air-water generator, in collaboration with a city-based firm called WaterMaker, a specialist in this segment. This is the first time such a product is being indigenously built. While the company did not indicate the investment behind the project or the cost of the machine it proposes to launch, industry sources say it is likely to be priced at nothing less than Rs 90,000-1,00,000 a unit, if benchmarked against similar products available in the West. The technology, used in countries such as Israel and Singapore , sucks in humid air with the help of a suction pipe that is exposed to the atmosphere. The humid air then passes through condensers that separate the water from the air. This water is then purified and made available for drinking purpose through a nozzle (tap).
Eureka Forbes was also contemplating machines that can be used at home. This was likely to be part of the project’s second phase, once it had successfully pushed products targeted at institutions. The hope is by that time, the cost of producing the machine would significantly come down, he added. Internationally, air-water generators are available for $1,500-2,000 a unit, depending on the sophistication of the technology and the amount of water it can produce. There are products that are priced higher as well, experts say.
So in short, problems are there but then innovative solutions need to be found to avert future wars.
J S Broca, New Delhi
13th May 2016