Indian water mystery

Grumpy is often surprised by the frequency of news reports which appear to contain contradictory elements.

Reliable sources indicate that mobile phone penetration in India has reached over 85%, being some 1.1 billion users. Now smartphones contain a numbers of elements called ‘rare earths’, which are (as their name implies) scarce, and are also expensive and difficult to extract. For some of these elements, unless better recovery can be achieved by re-cycling, shortages might become critical in less than a decade.

The contradictory report in question was an article published by CNN which said that  India was ‘on the brink of crisis’ because of ‘extreme water shortage’, which was affecting 600 million people, amounting to some 46% of the population. It claimed that up to 200,000 people a year died as a result of shortage or contamination of water. Let’s assume that this report is correct, and hold that thought for a moment.

One fact needs to be made clear first; unlike rare earths, there is no shortage of water in the world as a compound – it covers 2/3 of the surface of the earth to a depth which can often be  measured in  kilometres. Furthermore, compared with just about every other compound extracted and used by man, it is very pure – for example, over 96% of seawater is plain H2O; it’s hard to think of any other industrial process which is as simple as extracting pure water from it.

So why is Grumpy puzzled by these figures ?

  • Shimla, one the  cities highlighted by CNN with a picture of the populace carrying buckets, has a significantly greater average annual rainfall then the UK. Many other cities and parts of India have vastly more rainfall. Overall, India has an average rainfall of 1168mm per year and  80% of the total area at least 740mm.
  • Nearly all major cities lie on the banks of rivers (which for the avoidance of doubt, have water in them) where ipso facto the majority of the population lives.
  • However, since 85% of the populace have mobile phones, and 46% are suffering ‘extreme shortage’, then people must be dying of thirst whilst clutching a mobile in their hand.  One must conclude that this is not a finance issue, since if someone can afford a mobile, then they should be able to afford water, if available.

So the CNN article is a best misleading. There is patently  no shortage of the compound water either globally or in India; however, there is a shortage of easily accessible potable water arising from lack of infrastructure, economic governmental  stupidity in commodity pricing, and lack of political will (and maybe pork barrel corruption) to address the issue. This is not how CNN portrayed it; the reality is any water shortage exists with the connivance of man, rather than being some state of nature.

This is not a technical challenge  –  you can distil water by boiling a kettle. India itself does not seem to be poor;  it is a country which is the world’s sixth largest economy, has the world’s second largest military, has developed nuclear weapons and launched a satellite, and yet it allows 200,000 citizens to die each year of thirst or disease for lack of action on what surely should be one of the primary obligations of a government – providing potable water for its populace. The problem here is not resource, but politicians, and their unwillingness or incapability to solve (relatively simple) problems. It just takes will and money – which had they not spent on nuclear weapons, could have been directed to save the population from cholera.

As a footnote, dear taxpayer, the UK provided India with over £150m in ‘development aid’  in 2015, to a country with clearly distorted priorities and weak  moral integrity.