Threats Posed by Water Scarcity Detailed
U.N. Report Warns Of Looming Crisis

 

By Rick Weiss
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 market.

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 sanitation.

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 Oakland, Calif.

"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."

 

 

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