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Wastewaters of the Third Pole: Challenges and Opportunities in Hindu Kush Himalaya

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“Why waste water?”

This is the provocative question-slash-theme posed by the United Nations this year in honor of World Water Day. And this question comes at a key moment when rising concerns about global water access has inspired the recent Human Right to Water Declaration signed in Rome by Pope Francis and water experts from around the world. I was pleased to represent ICIMOD as a signatory to that statement as well.

Read the news on Roma Statement 2017

In the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), where ICIMOD works, ten major rivers descend from the mountains to the plains of South Asia, a hydrological network of immense complexity and immense importance to more than 2 billion people. Developing this resource sustainably is fundamental to building healthy and more resilient lives.

For this reason, the question “Why waste water?” prompts us to think about conservation and improving our methods for use and re-use of this precious resource. While we can all appreciate how water impacts our lives through hygiene and production, we need to focus more effort on the re-use of water, and understanding how the water we put back into the environment after use can affect others.

Water starts in the HKH on mountain tops in the form of snow and glaciers that release billions of litres of water each year that flow downhill, providing material for livelihoods and ecosystem services to downstream communities throughout all of South Asia.

If we imagine a single drop of water that starts in the Himalaya and travels downstream through rivers and springs, we discover a story that’s complex and meaningful, and brings every one of us together in a relationship that asks us to think more carefully about how we use and conserve our water.

In the hills of the HKH, families rely heavily on springs to furnish water. They carry water from spring-fed taps, sometimes kilometers away, to their homes for cooking, bathing, and cleaning. Some families worship at the riverside: the water plays a important role in their cultural practices. Streams at this level are diverted in places for irrigation, the water flowing through hand-hewn channels to produce much-needed crops for the household and local markets. In some areas, hydropower dams hold water back to generate electricity, impeding the flow of rivers to produce vital energy that helps make lives less onerous and more productive. Wastewater from one perspective is a source of water from another perspective. A single drop of water during its journey from the mountains to oceans may be drinking water, serve religious purposes, provide a home for fish, and generate energy.

These are among the many benefits people living upstream draw from Himalayan rivers and water. These same communities also bear an important responsibility to care for this water and to keep the water clean and safe for the people living downstream in the hills, plains and beyond. In the downstream plains, cities are larger and the need for clean water more intense. Poor water management upstream can diminish the quality of life of those downstream.

But this responsibility for water is not one way. Downstream communities also have a responsibility to the upstream communities to share benefits and resources with hill and mountain families to help strengthen their lives.

So, how do we manage this challenge in our mountain region? Well, it won’t be easy, but solutions are available. First we have to understand that water is used, and reused, and we need to provide opportunities to get the best out of each drop of water. We need to avoid at all costs the pollution of waterways. If our activities alter water quality, say, by city use, we need to treat polluted water at the source and manage our water in such a way that the pollution does not re-enter the environment. We need to continue educating stakeholders about the complex network and dynamics of our hydro-scape and relations between upstream and downstream users. And we need to continue innovating technologies that can improve mountain people’s access to water in a way that optimizes the use and quality of that water.

So on this World Water Day, ICIMOD renews its pledge and commitment to finding positive solutions for mountain people, in the HKH and beyond.


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13 Oct 2023 China

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