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Special Content

Issue no 27, 30 September - 06 October 2023


Achieving Balance:

Understanding Water Neutrality


Avinash Mishra

Snigdha Goel


Water is the lifeblood of our planet. It's a surprising fact that approximately 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by tiny ocean plants known as phytoplankton. This process is vital for our survival. Water holds immense significance for agriculture, businesses, and our very existence. However, there's a growing concern: we are depleting our freshwater resources at an alarming rate, and water is becoming increasingly scarce.


In the last half-century, global freshwater consumption has nearly doubled, exceeding 4 trillion cubic meters annually. As our cities expand, a growing number of people are facing difficulties in accessing sufficient water. By 2050, it is estimated that between 1.7 billion and 2.4 billion urban residents worldwide will struggle to secure an adequate water supply, and India is expected to be one of the hardest-hit countries.


While on the one hand, rapid growth of cities and industries has led to increased water demand, on the other hand, climate change threatens to diminish our water supply. Globally, industry and energy contribute to 19% of total fresh-water withdrawals, including groundwater. Furthermore, in South Asia, 47% of water consumption goes towards industrial production, a figure expected to rise due to the rapid pace at which most of the region's economies are growing. Given these alarming statistics, it is easy to understand why the United Nations predicts a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2040 compared to demand.


In India, the distribution of the 4,000 billion cubic meters of available water is uneven across the country. To address this, we should either store the water in reservoirs or transfer it from surplus areas to deficit regions. However, both options face implementation challenges. Currently, our surface water storage stands at just below 260 billion cubic meters, with a potential increase to 300 billion cubic meters when ongoing projects are completed. Initiating new large storage projects often requires a lengthy period due to environmental considerations, resettlement and rehabilitation processes, investigations, and implementation issues.


Simultaneously, there exists a significant gap between sewage generation and treatment capacity. According to the 2021 report by the Central Pollution Control Board, urban India generates 72,368 million liters per day (MLD) of municipal sewage, while the installed sewage treatment capacity is only 31,841 MLD, covering just 44%. The traditional approach to water usage and disposal, characterised by business as usual, is no longer sustainable. To meet future water demands, the most viable option is to manage and utilise our available water resources with utmost efficiency and prudence.


New development projects often lead to increased water demand in a given region. If the watershed is already close to its limit, as is the case in many areas, any additional demand exacerbates water stress and conflicts. This further widens the gap in water availability among different segments of society. Naturally, the socio-economically disadvantaged sections will bear the brunt, thereby offsetting social progress.


In this context, the concept of water neutrality has emerged to raise awareness about the escalating water stress and inspire positive action. Water neutrality was first conceived by Pancho Ndebele at the Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002. During the conference, the water consumed by delegates was quantified and translated into real monetary value. Attendees were encouraged to make the summit water-neutral by purchasing water-neutral certificates to offset their water consumption. The funds from these certificates were allocated to installing playpumps in water-deprived communities in South Africa.


A process, product, consumer, community, or business is considered water-neutral when its water footprint has been minimised, particularly in regions facing water scarcity or pollution. Additionally, the negative environmental, social, and economic consequences of the remaining water footprint are offset through a reasonable investment in projects aimed at the sustainable and equitable use of water. It is important to note that achieving water neutrality does not mean reducing the water footprint to zero but rather mitigating the environmental impacts of an activity. It has the potential to yield significant water savings and create water-saving credits similar to carbon credits.


Several major brands, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have pledged to become water-neutral by 2030, committing to replenishing more water than they consume. Another exemplary initiative is the pledge made by the Telengana Government during the World Environment Day in 2023 announcing its intention to implement regulations promoting water neutrality in buildings, particularly high-rise residential and commercial structures.


Measures for Achieving Water Neutrality: Shifting from a linear economy of "take, make, consume, and waste" to a circular economy of "make, use, recycle" is crucial. This transition involves adopting strategies to optimise water usage, known as the 5R's: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, and restore. These strategies include reusing treated wastewater for drinking or irrigation, enhancing surface and groundwater storage through recharge techniques, identifying and addressing water loss points, and using smart meters and water-efficient devices. While reducing and reusing water are essential components of water management, offsetting measures are equally critical to attain water neutrality.


Offsetting water consumption entails making reasonable investments in projects that promote the sustainable and equitable use of water. These initiatives often involve collaboration with local authorities, industries, and NGOs. It is important to clarify that a reasonable investment does not mean that activities causing water pollution can be compensated for by investing in water-related projects. As part of offsetting, industries can invest in projects such as removing water-consuming invasive plant species, capturing stormwater to replenish underground aquifers, and reforesting areas damaged by wildfires.


Implementing water offset policies, as done in the United States, has proven effective in mitigating impacts. Developers are required to ensure that new construction projects do not lead to increased overall water demand. In other words, the projected water consumption for a new development must be offset by water use reductions in off-site applications before approval is granted. While water offsetting is a valuable measure, priority should be given to practicing the 5Rs.


Despite its potential, water neutrality is still in its early stages, necessitating consumer awareness. Several barriers hinder its effective implementation and adoption across the country, including the absence of industry targets, insufficient funding from both private and government sectors, a tendency to focus on offsetting rather than reducing and reusing, and, most importantly, a lack of public awareness.


Recently, NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) outlined a standardised approach to assess water neutrality for Indian industries. This framework aims to ensure sustainable water use and propose incentives based on the assessment.


As we work toward achieving water security by 2047, water neutrality will play a pivotal role. A successful water-neutral operation within a watershed leaves a legacy for future generations and fosters water-saving behaviors from an early age. To effectively implement this concept, India may develop a water neutrality policy that outlines fundamental principles and approaches governing water neutrality, along with corresponding targets to measure its impact.


The authors are Advisor, NITI Aayog, Water & Land Resources vertical, and Young Professional, NITI Aayog, Water & Land Resources vertical. Feedback on this article can be sent to feedback.employmentnews@gmail.com


Views expressed are personal.