Freshwater quest, the likely new gold hunt

Context:

The discovery of freshwater reservoirs beneath the ocean bed has sparked interest in exploring and harnessing this hidden resource.

  • With freshwater becoming increasingly scarce, nations are eyeing underwater sources within their maritime zones and beyond. However, navigating the legal framework governing such exploration presents a complex challenge.

Relevance:
GS – 2, GS – 3, GS – 1 (Water Resources, Conservation of Resources)

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Exploring Freshwater Reserves
  • Global Study on Freshwater Shortages and Climate Change Impacts
  • Freshwater Shortage Status in India
  • Significance

Exploring Freshwater Reserves:

  • Unveiling Hidden Reserves: Surprising discoveries of freshwater rivers and aquifers beneath the ocean bed have challenged conventional notions about water resources. These findings open new avenues for accessing freshwater reserves that were previously inaccessible.
  • Global Water Distribution: Despite the abundance of water on Earth, only a small fraction exists in liquid form on the surface. The majority of freshwater reserves are underground, including those beneath the ocean floor. This highlights the significance of exploring alternative sources to meet growing water demands.
  • Legal Framework: The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) governs maritime activities, including the exploration and exploitation of resources beyond national jurisdiction. However, complexities arise due to the interaction between UNCLOS and customary international law, as well as the precedence of UNCLOS over earlier conventions.
  • Area of Common Heritage: The “Area” designated under UNCLOS encompasses the seabed and ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction, considered the common heritage of mankind. While UNCLOS regulates activities within this area, non-signatory states remain outside its purview, posing challenges in enforcing international regulations.

Global Study on Freshwater Shortages and Climate Change Impacts:

  • A recent global study conducted by Circle of Blue and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) delved into attitudes towards freshwater shortages, surveying nearly 30,000 individuals from 31 countries. Notably, respondents from Argentina, South Korea, Vietnam, Colombia, Germany, and Peru exhibited the most significant increases in concerns regarding water shortages over recent years.
  • Key highlights from the report include:
    • Approximately 30% of respondents indicated significant impacts from freshwater shortages.
    • Concerns regarding freshwater shortages have surged from 49% in 2014 to 61% in 2022 among the 17 countries consistently monitored.
    • Urban dwellers (32%) expressed a higher likelihood of being greatly affected by freshwater scarcity compared to rural (28%) or suburban residents (26%).
    • A substantial 38% of respondents reported being significantly personally impacted by climate change.
    • Among those affected by climate change, drought emerged as the most worrisome consequence.
  • These findings underscore the growing global apprehension regarding freshwater availability and its interplay with climate change, urging concerted efforts towards sustainable water management and climate resilience initiatives.

Freshwater Shortage Status in India:

  • Limited Resources: Despite hosting 16% of the world’s population, India possesses only 4% of global freshwater reserves, leading to chronic freshwater scarcity.
  • High Water Stress: NITI Aayog reports that a significant portion of the Indian population faces severe to extreme water stress due to dwindling water availability.
  • Impending Crisis in North India: By 2060, North India, the densely populated region, is projected to confront irreversible freshwater scarcity due to declining water availability exacerbated by climate change.
  • Environmental Challenges:

a. Water Pollution: Discharge of domestic, industrial, and mining waste into water bodies contributes to water pollution, leading to waterborne diseases and eutrophication, affecting aquatic ecosystems.

b. Groundwater Overexploitation: 256 out of 700 districts in India report critical or overexploited groundwater levels, intensifying the water crisis as wells and reservoirs dry up.

  • Urbanization Strain: Rapid urbanization and rural-to-urban migration increase per capita water usage in cities, necessitating the transfer of water from rural to urban areas. This potential shift may trigger conflicts between rural and urban regions over water resources.

Significance:

  • Water Security: As freshwater scarcity emerges as a global concern, the exploration of underwater reserves offers a potential solution to mitigate water stress. Accessing freshwater from beneath the ocean bed can enhance water security and resilience against climate-induced droughts and water shortages.
  • Sustainable Development: Harnessing underwater freshwater resources aligns with sustainable development goals, promoting equitable access to essential resources while preserving the environment for future generations. By investing in freshwater exploration, nations can address pressing water challenges while advancing sustainable development agendas.
  • Global Collaboration: Addressing legal ambiguities and regulatory gaps requires international cooperation and consensus-building. Collaborative efforts among nations, guided by principles of equity and environmental stewardship, can facilitate responsible exploration and exploitation of underwater freshwater reserves.

Suggested Measures:

  • Legislative Clarity: Developing a comprehensive legal framework tailored to address the unique challenges of exploring freshwater reserves beyond national jurisdiction is essential. This framework should reconcile UNCLOS provisions with customary international law, ensuring clarity and consistency in governing maritime activities.
  • International Dialogue: Engaging in constructive dialogue and negotiation forums, nations can work towards harmonizing divergent legal interpretations and fostering mutual understanding. Establishing multilateral agreements and protocols can promote cooperation and coordination in managing underwater freshwater resources.
  • Research and Innovation: Investing in research and technological innovation is critical for unlocking the full potential of underwater freshwater reserves. Advanced exploration techniques and sustainable extraction methods can optimize resource utilization while minimizing environmental impact.
  • Role of India: As a key stakeholder in maritime affairs, India can play a leadership role in shaping international discourse on freshwater exploration. By advocating for inclusive and equitable approaches, India can contribute to the development of global norms and standards governing underwater resource management.