Imagine that a billion people around the world are without a source of potable water-that is, one seventh of the world population has no access to clean water. The so-called globalization and the failure of leadership to meet one of the basic needs of humanity have tended to increase the incidence of waterborne diseases. Opinions are divided about the rationale of public-private partnership as one of the viable means to meet the crises in respect of accessibility and availability of clean drinking water. And there is no end to inter-State disputes over the rights of riparian States to receive adequate supplies of water for irrigation. Even the available water from great and small rivers is polluted beyond the saturation point. And there seems to be little headway in regard to the river-linking plan initiated by the Supreme Court with opinions still being expressed about its viability and utility.

It was clear from the recently held Fourth World Water Forum (WWF) in Mexico where the world community was still fumbling for a solution to the looming water crisis. The cold statistics released by the UN World Water development Report gives enough room for gloom: nearly 6,000 people, mostly children, die of water-related causes every day. The WWF’s suggestion to build big dams would be inviting mixed response, as there is a growing volume of opinion, especially from environmentalists, that big dams are counterproductive and spawn the insoluble problem of displacement of poor families. We in India know the plight of the displaced caused by the Narmada Dam.

A multiplicity of programmes has come up in the last two decades to provide drinking water to rural and urban India, but those who experience hardships in both rural and urban India know that the schemes have not touched even the fringe of this, colossal problem.

For more than a decade, the idea that private companies would be able to bring water to the world’s poor has been a catchword of development policies promoted by international lending agencies and many governments. But this has not happened. Private companies have managed to provide water to just 10 million people less than one percent of those who need it. So there is less talk of privatization and people want to strengthen local public utilities.

All the same, there are a few solitary success stories of public-private partnerships in provision of water as in Tirupur in Tamil Nadu arid Navi Mumbai in Maharashtra. On February 7, 2006, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms. J. Jayalalitha inaugurated a public-private partnership that is now providing water and sewerage services to thousands of Tirupur area residents. The project was initiated in the mid-1990s when the Tirupur Exporters Association recognized the need to improve that area’s infrastructure. They established the New Tirupur Area Development Corporation Ltd., a group of private and public entities, which became the first public-private partnership in the water and sanitation sector in South Asia operating on a Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) basis. Today, thanks to that initiative, Tirupur residents receive water every day for 4 to 6 hours, as opposed to receiving water only on alternate days at the best of times, prior to the project. Household water connections have increased by 8,000 and local industry now has a reliable source of water. One hundred percent of the new domestic users have paid for the water connection to access high quality of water-the fee covers the capital costs of each new connection.

Navi Mumbai has shown how to improve water and sanitation services by using performance-based contracts to manage its water distribution and transmission system. Revenues were increased by almost 45 percent the year following the introduction of the new contracts. The city was also able to reduce unnecessary expenditures-over a two-year period the city reduced its annual energy consumption by Rs. 45 lakhs on sewerage contracts alone. Performance based contracts allowed the utility not only to provide better service to the customers, but also at lower operational costs.

But they bitter have been the experience of some Latin American countries over the privatization of water. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Bolivia where in the city of El Alto, residents have been fighting a subsidiary of the French company Suez. The government is negotiating for Suez to leave, arguing than it did not extend service to people too poor to pay enough to make it profitable. “The water rates have to conform to reality7′, said Bolivia’s new Water Minister Mr. Abel Mamani. An uprising in the city of Cochabamba five years ago chased out a subsidiary of the US Company Bechtel, after it raised rates but foiled to improve services.

Bolivian officials at the World Water Forum admitted that the old public municipal water systems were mired in corruption, bureaucracy and nepotism. “The solution is for the community to get involved in water management,” says a Latin American economist. In a few cities in Brazil, citizen’ groups are overseeing water utility.

Water exacerbates passions between riparian States and neighbouring countries. There exists permanent mechanism to solve disputes pertaining to sharing of waters of the Indus as between India and Pakistan. Similarly there are common understandings as between India and China, India and Bangladesh, India and Nepal, and India and Bhutan, with regard to common water sources.

We have also seen how river water disputes cause frayed tempers as between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the River Cauvery, as between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka over the River Krishna, as between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the River Mullaperiyar or, as between Punjab on the one hand and Haryana and Delhi on the other, over the River Yamuna.

What is the quality of water of our big and small rivers? The less said the better. With a lot of fanfare, we started the Clean Ganga Project. That the funds earmarked for the grandiose project have come to a naught has been demonstrated by the unpardonable pollution of the River Ganga, as thousands of pilgrims throng the Ghats at Varanasi for a dip in the sacred Ganga. The Ganga continues to receive partially burnt bodies, piles of garbage and raw sewage. Ganga water at all the 84 Ghats of Varanasi is highly polluted. An estimated 36,000 bodies are cremated here every year. Hundreds upon thousands converge on the Ghats to immerse the mortal remains of the departed dear ones.

What about the Yamuna and other rivers? The Yamuna cannot be better than the Ganga. Some of the peninsular rivers like the Hharatapuzha or Nila have died a natural death on account of ecological factors.

We have been talking about rain harvesting. A few States have made it mandatory to have permanent rain water harvesting structures while granting permission for house construction.

Nobody knows the fate of the plan to link the rivers of India in order to solve the annual problems of floods and drought and in the process, provide water for irrigation, drinking water and power. It seems that enthusiasm seen when the ambitious project was launched in 2003, has waned after the advent of the UPA Government, with experts still debating the ecological problems that the project may throw up.

Water resources of our country can be managed only if the Government lays proper guidelines unblurred by political or sectarian considerations. We need a well-thought out plan for the provision of drinking water in both the cities and the countryside. Any plan to succeed must have the full support of the community and the non-government agencies. Every programme needs monitoring at all stages of implementation. A systematic approach alone will avert water crisis.