Threats Posed by Water Scarcity Detailed
U.N. Report Warns Of Looming Crisis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2003
The world's limited reserves of clean,
fresh water are shrinking fast, posing a serious threat to public
health, political stability and the environment, according to a
massive analysis released yesterday by the United Nations.
The 600-page report, the most
comprehensive assessment of the planet's most essential natural
resource, predicts that as many as 7 billion people in 60 countries
could face water scarcity by 2050. In just 20 years, the report
predicts, the average supply of water per person worldwide will have
dropped by one-third, affecting almost every nation and especially
those already on the economic edge.
"Of all the social and natural crises
we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of
our survival and that of our planet Earth," said Koichiro Matsuura,
director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization, the lead agency among the 23 U.N. groups that
collaborated in the report's creation.
Mismanagement, global warming and
population growth have caused the crisis, the report says. Solutions
are within reach, but because of political "inertia," it says, "the
future for many parts of the world looks bleak."
The release of the World Water
Development Report, more than two years in the making, comes one week
before the start of an international summit, the 3rd World Water
Forum, in Kyoto, Japan. Delegations from more than 100 nations, along
with thousands of other participants, will try to hammer out
principles and goals to defuse the planet's water problems and avert
the water wars that some foresee.
The report paints a dire picture of a
precious resource growing increasingly scarce and sullied because of
failed water management policies, including an over-reliance on large
dams and shortsighted efforts to over-privatize the fresh water
But it also points to the possibility
of a happier hydrologic future, in which improved infrastructure,
sensible pricing plans, conservation technologies and water treaties
are brought to bear. In that future, all of the 9.3 billion people
expected to inhabit the Earth a few decades from now would have
reliable access to clean water for drinking and growing food, with
adequate surpluses to service the ecosystems around them.
The key, the report concludes, is a
better understanding of water's pervasive importance, intelligent
investment and a broader implementation of the U.N. dictum that access
to clean water is a human right.
"Globally, the challenge lies in
raising the political will to implement water-related commitments,"
the report concludes. "Water professionals need a better understanding
of the broader social, economic, and political context, while
politicians need to be better informed about water resource issues."
The report highlights several
consequences of current water-use patterns and trends.
Shortages of clean water have a direct
effect on human health. Water contaminated with fecal bacteria,
parasites and other microbes causes about 6,000 deaths every day,
including 1.4 million children under the age of 5 every year.
The United Nations already has as a
goal to reduce by one half the proportion of people who lack reliable
access to clean water (defined as access to at least 20 liters per
person per day from a source within one kilometer of the person's
home) by the year 2015. The organization has also called for cutting
in half the proportion of people who lack access to basic sanitation
facilities. More than 1 billion people worldwide currently lack access
to clean water, and more than twice that number live without
Fresh water is also crucial for
agriculture, with about 70 percent of the fresh water used today
earmarked for irrigation. But with growing urbanization -- urban
populations are predicted to exceed rural ones for the first time in
about 15 years -- the water crisis is heading downtown. High-density
urban settings, especially in poorer countries, pose extremely
difficult problems over water supply and sewage handling.
And as globalization continues apace,
many cities in less developed countries are working with toxic
chemicals needed to make the products demanded by richer countries --
and then are dumping those chemicals into waterways. That's in
addition to the 2 million tons of human waste that are spilled into
fresh water courses every day.
Because fresh water is distributed so
unevenly around the world, water is a political time bomb as well.
More than 260 of the world's river basins are shared by at least two
countries. Those areas account for 40 percent of the world's
population and pose difficult balancing issues when one country seeks
to dam up, siphon off or pollute that shared resource.
Global warming, which scientists say
is causing droughts and more extreme storms, is blamed by the report
for about 20 percent of the recent growth in water scarcity.
Money isn't the whole answer, but it
would help, said Andras Szollosi-Nagy, secretary of UNESCO's
international hydrological program. Global investment in access to
fresh water needs to be about $40 billion more than the current $60
billion, he said. One of the big debates slated for Kyoto is how to
balance the public and private aspects of the water economy.
"Water is a public good," said
Szollosi-Nagy. There is a role for private companies to help provide
it, he said. But it's an important axiom that providers don't "own"
the water, he said, and that "water pricing schemes must include a
mechanism to protect the poor."
Wealthy countries can also set an
example by conserving and by exporting conservation technologies, said
Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in
"Americans use 20 percent less water
per capita than we did 20 years ago," he said, "yet we're much better
off than we were before."