Still considered as a gift of nature in plenty, freshwater is being extracted and used commercially with little or no economic cost. Overuse and pollution, if not checked, are feared to turn freshwater into a non-renewable resource
H2O. Two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms make this chemical compound, water, which covers three-fourths of the world's surface. This is what one learns from elementary school textbooks.
An easy chemical formula does not mean it is easy to produce water in laboratories. And of all of the water on Earth, 97% is saltwater, leaving a mere 3% as freshwater, approximately 1% of which is readily available for use by humans and most other living things.
This is what the Earth, referred to as "the water planet", has in its store for meeting humans' everyday needs – what they drink, eat, wear and use.
Still considered as a gift of nature in plenty, freshwater is being extracted and used commercially with little or no economic cost. Overuse and pollution, if not checked, are feared to turn freshwater into a non-renewable resource.
Examples of manmade damage to natural water sources are scattered all over.
Virtual disappearance of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is one such case of how intensive agriculture and pollution dried up the once fourth largest inland sea on earth.
Water flow to the Aral Sea was diverted to irrigate farmlands in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the 1960s with devastating results.
Sixty years of thoughtless use destroyed the surroundings and ecology of the lake. Its water became saltier, concentrations of minerals increased, and fertilisers and pesticides caused pollution.
The fishing industry, which employed the local people, collapsed by the 1980s due to the increased salinity.
Industries are using freshwater – both surface and underground – for washing products or making beverages. A court in India's Kerala ordered Coca-Cola in 2003 to stop drawing groundwater after locals protested that the company's bottling plant was drying up their wells, forcing them to walk 5km twice a day to collect drinking water.
The American drinks giant drew around 5,10,000 litres yearly as it used 3.75 litres of water to produce one litre of drinks.
Coca-Cola and another US beverage giant PepsiCo faced similar protests in 2017 in the drought-hit Indian state of Tamil Nadu, described as one of the planet's regional labs for understanding human responses to water stress.
Madras High Court ruled against the two beverage companies for drawing excessive water from a nearby river when people in Tamil Nadu towns waited for hours to get their jugs filled from water trucks.
Campaigners said these two companies are major buyers of India's sugarcane which is a water-grazing crop. If water used for sugarcane farming is considered, the companies need 400 litres of water to make a 1 litre fizzy drink.
Public protests and regulators' steps forced Coca-Cola to suspend three bottling plants and reorganise operations in 24 others pledging to use less water.
Huge industrial use of river water compelled India's Gujarat state to drastically reduce water supply to industries from the Narmada dam.
Industries came under pressure from the UK water regulator to be more efficient in water use. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Unilever were among 54 companies that in 2007 pledged to reduce water consumption by 20% before 2020. Until 2014, the companies were consuming 33 million cubic metres per year, most of which is taken from municipal potable water supplies.
Newspaper reports show how PepsiCo and Coca-Cola made millions, bottling tap water, disrupting water supply to hundreds of households in Detroit, USA during the pandemic early 2020. Water supply was cut to homes for $150 bills in arrears, while supplies to Dasani and Aquafina plants – two bottled water brands of Coke and Pepsi – continued despite their huge arrears. Rights advocates alleged that the city authorities were subsidising the two companies at the expense of public money.
Their business model was criticised for selling a bottle of water at 133 times higher than the cost paid for the Detroit city tap water.
Rights groups in India claim beverage companies pay only 37.50 paisa per 1,000 litres of water extracted and sell their drinks at a much higher cost.
In Dhaka, Wasa supplies water to residences at Tk14.46 for each unit (1,000 litres), a little more than one paisa per litre, while bottled water costs Tk30 a litre.
Making a hamburger needs 2,400 litres of water.
Apparel dyeing and finishing units in Gazipur use about 13 billion litres of freshwater a year. Washing 1kg of jeans needs 250 litres of water, four times higher than the global standard.
Some factories, in partnership with global brands and international organisations, have stepped in to be more efficient in water use. And there is some success, which is encouraging others.
But pollution is going unabated. Rivers around Dhaka – Buriganga, Turag, Shitalakhya – are almost dead with industrial wastes. After damaging the Buriganga, untreated solid liquid wastes from relocated tannery units in the tannery estate are polluting the Dhaleshwari in Savar near capital Dhaka.
Icecaps and glaciers hold up over 68% of the freshwater on Earth, with 30% found underground and only 0.3% in the surface – rivers, lakes, swamps.
The United Nations considers access to freshwater as a basic human right. In the Millennium Declaration, the UNEP is charged with monitoring water policies and progress made on freshwater goals by countries. The sustainable development goal (SDG) 6.6 calls for framing Industrial Water Use Policy by 2020.
Bangladesh has initiated the process of regulating industrial use of freshwater.
But law or policy alone will not work to prevent freshwater from getting polluted and being depleted fast. Water is not just a business of Wasa and the water resources ministry any longer. Companies need to take it as an economic component and recognise the true cost of freshwater while using water for commercial purposes.