Business In The Time Of Calamity

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” (Job 5:8-9)

Humankind, it seems, is aboard the ship from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s best-known work, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, and yet there are 2 billion people at present who drink water contaminated with faeces. By the year 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

‘Water, water, everywhere, / nor any drop to drink’!

Civilizations have thrived in regions where water is abundant. Be it the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Nile or the Euphrates; great rivers have nurtured great empires. As the population exploded, people began moving and settling away from the rivers. The industrial revolution did not only help the Europeans colonize the Asian, African and American countries; rather it aided the wholesome colonization of the planet by humans.

Those who could not afford a river (more precisely, land in a river valley) could now get their fields irrigated by a pump. Wells and tube-wells were already in use for meeting the household requirements. The discovery that there’s water underground was a revelation. However, no one knew the amount stored there, or whether it gets replenished quick enough. We do have the answers now, and they are anything but encouraging.

The map above is the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. The regions around the world that are going to face extreme water stress by the year 2020 are covered in dark red. The European Environment Agency defines water stress as a situation ‘when the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use.’

Alarmingly, almost all of North, West and South India is projected to be a water-stressed region only two years from now! The middle east countries, Western and Central US and the populated parts of China, Australia, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain are all going to be water stressed by the end of the decade.

If we look at the seasonal variability (see map below), we are sitting on a time bomb! India is all but covered in red, deep red. For a country, whose agrarian economy is still dependent on monsoon, this is a disturbing forecast. It’s already happening. While we, the regular Indians, were concerned about the Champions Trophy loss to Pakistan, PM Modi’s economic policy changes, Rahul Gandhi’s coronation, Shilpa Shetty’s love for animals (or lack thereof), Sushma Swaraj’s tweets, Shashi Tharoor’s vocab, or a wedding in Italy, another 12,000 farmers wrote, “I Quit”, on their barren fields.

One might be feeling that if the situation is so dire, why is it not getting enough media attention? The fact is, media do sometimes cover these stories, however, what matters to us is the biopic on the beautiful, brave and pious queen of Chittor, and not a colourless, tasteless, odourless liquid.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,’ claims that we are living in the most prosperous of times when deaths due to wars, plagues, and famines are now way less than any time previously. While this is correct, it is also true that more than half a million people die every year due to diarrhoea caused by contaminated drinking water.

Moreover, those at the bottom of the pyramid are the ones facing the heat. India’s per capita income (basis purchasing power parity) is USD 6490. Given that the richest 1 percent of India’s population owns 58 percent of national wealth, the purchasing power of the half of India’s 130 billion people is so low that they won’t be able to afford clean drinking water. Culturally water is seen as a resource that comes free of cost, as such, many would not be willing to spend money to procure drinking water.

Minting Money Amidst a Calamity

What solutions do we have for a country with an imminent crisis and a population that isn’t aware or simply doesn’t care?

Michael Burry, one of the first investors to have predicted the financial crisis of 2008, has been focusing all of his trading on water. That Christian Bale has reprised his character as the eccentric investor in the movie, ‘The Big Short,’ only enhances his popularity. Burry enlists three ways with which one can make money by investing in water:

  • Purchasing water rights: This means purchasing a water body or source that would give the owner the right to use the water from it. The investor then makes money by selling the water at a higher price than originally bought. Is this practical, especially in India? The scriptures say that even King Shantanu couldn’t have Ganga for life. How does one have the sole right to a river whose value is more symbolic than utilitarian? Most of India’s natural resources, especially the rivers, are associated with a deity, with the psyche of the people. Thus, an individual purchasing water rights in India is preposterous.

  • Invest in water-rich farmland: This is what Burry himself has been doing. Instead of commoditizing water directly, trade in the food products that require a large amount of water to cultivate. Invest in water-rich farmlands, as the demand grows, you become rich, as other parts of the planet won’t be able to grow the water-intensive crops.
  • Invest in water utilities, equipment, and infrastructure: Invest in making water available to the people, in setting up water purification plants, building and maintaining pipelines that deliver pure water to the homes, water ATMs, or on firms engaged in these activities. These are now catching up in India with several companies engaged in making water available for the people and the fields.

The question remains will it be morally correct to look for business opportunities in something as essential as water? Don’t we all have a natural right to water resources? Most importantly, will the 650 million Indian people surviving on less than $2 a day be able and willing to pay for water?

Time and again, it has been proved that charity has its limits. There’s a point up to which a product or service can be offered for free. Also, you don’t value the things that you don’t pay for. It is therefore imperative that water should be made available to people at a price that pinches their pockets, not least because this is the most essential as well as endangered of resources. Obviously, a uniform pricing strategy won’t apply to everyone. However, the differences can be made in the services, packaging, and aesthetics. Water for irrigation will call for an innovative method of pricing. The point is, irrespective of social strata; everyone should be made to believe that fresh water is a precious resource that comes at a cost.

Men (and women) travelled miles to the bank of the Ganges to ‘purify themselves’ in her waters.

“Tava Cen-Maatah Srotah-Snaatah Punar-Api Jatthare Sopi Na Jaatah |
Naraka-Nivaarinni Jaahnavi Gangge Kalussa-Vinaashini Mahimo[a-U]ttungge ||.”

Translation: “(Salutations to Devi Ganga) O Mother, he who has bathed in the flow of Your Pure Water, he will not again take birth from the womb of a mother (i.e., have rebirth),
O Jahnavi Ganga, You save people from falling in the Naraka (Hell) and destroy their Impurities; O Mother Ganga, Your Greatness stands High.”

For centuries, millions of Indians have incurred cost and hardship to reap benefits in the afterlife. It’s reasonable to suggest that they would mostly be willing to pay for benefits that are tangible and in the present. Moreover, the amount charged would be different depending upon the capacity and propensity to pay, while the benefits derived would be similar – escape death, evade diseases and avoid wasting person-hours on fetching water.

Given the unpredictable nature of Indian consumers, no one can be fully sure of success. Nevertheless, if there is a way to avoid the catastrophe, charity isn’t. Until and unless it makes business sense, few people would be willing to invest and politicians and media won’t pay due attention. Let’s hope that since one of the most pragmatic investors of the last decade has turned his focus on water, others will follow.

Let’s not lay this cause before Him; we are already too late. Humans – pragmatic ones – have to perform this miracle themselves. It’s now or never!


Joy Deep

Hi! I am Joydeep, a second-year student at IIM Rohtak. Cricket, Politics, History, and Marketing are my interests.