World facing bleak water future, warns UN
Girish Chadha   |   5/31/2009 3:28:44 PM

The world is staring at a bleak water future. Rapidly increasing global population levels, widespread mismanagement and rising demand for energy are tightening the grip on the world's evaporating water supplies, with climate change exacerbating the problem.

This stark warning was issued by the UN in a report released on March 16 at the World Water Forum in Istanbul. The third edition of World Water Development Report, entitled Water in a changing world paints a grim scenario for the world's freshwater resources, especially in developing countries, and described the outlook for coming generations as deeply worrying.

The warning from the UN is based on one of the most comprehensive assessments the global body has undertaken on the state of the world's fresh water. As many as 26 UN agencies were involved in the making of the report which was part of the UN World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP).

Releasing the report formally, UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura said the report has for the first time examined how changes in water demand and supply interact with other global dynamics such as climate change, population growth and increasing food and security consumption as well as the current economic crisis.

"The report tries to look outside the water box and like this Forum, seeks to bridge the many divides that stand in the way of an effective understanding of and response to world water needs", said Matsuura.

The world's population has swollen to well over 6 billion people and some countries have already reached the limits of their water resources. The water crisis is particularly strong in several parts of Africa and Asia and threatens to unsettle the economic gains achieved by some of the countries. Previous assessments by other global agencies have also warned that global players like India and China could also see their some dent in their economic development in the wake of the water crisis.

Stating that conflicts about water can occur at all scales, the report warns that hydrologic shocks that may occur through climate change increase the risk of major national and international security threats, especially in unstable areas.

The warnings given by the report come against a backdrop of several stand-offs being witnessed across the world following acute shortages. The dwindling water resources have also led to several intra-country conflicts breaking out.

The United Nations is worried that the growing number of conflicts over the fast depleting resources could raise the spectre of political instability in some hitherto stable regions. This may require developing a new security regime to tackle such national and international situations. Experts have been warning that several countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, are vulnerable to conflicts.

Climate change is exacerbating the problem and the report estimated that almost half the world's population would be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.

Africa and several parts of Asia are already being bracketed in water stress areas and some have even witnessed civic unrest in the wake of water supplies getting exhausted. Lack of access to water helps drive poverty and deprivation and breeds the potential for unrest and conflict, it warned.

The UN report mentions that a strong link exists between poverty and water resources, with the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day approximately coinciding with the number of those without access to safe drinking water.

The report highlighted the major impact this situation has on health, as almost 80 per cent of diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing some three million early deaths. For example, 5,000 children die every day from diarrhoea, and roughly 10 per cent of all illnesses worldwide could be avoided by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources.

The report said that water shortages have already started to impede economic growth across the world, including China, India and Indonesia.

According to the report, demographic growth is boosting water stress in developing countries, where hydrological resources are often meagre. The global population is growing by 80 million people a year, 90 per cent of it in poorer countries. Demand for water is growing by 64 billion cubic metres (2.2 trillion cubic feet) per year, roughly equivalent to Egypt's annual water demand today.

On the crucial issue of the UN Millennium Development Goals, the report says the outlook remains mixed. The UN had set in 2000 the deadline of 2015 for halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The target on drinking water is on track but the tally of people without improved sanitation will have decreased only slightly by 2015, from 2.5 billion to 2.4 billion.

Going ahead, the report states that conservation and reuse of water, including recycled sewage, are the watchwords. There is a need for sustainable water management, with realistic pricing to curb waste. The report gives the example of India where free or almost-free water had led to huge waste in irrigation, causing soils to be waterlogged and salt-ridden.

Matsuura said one of the report's main messages is that leaders must recognize water's role in obtaining their objectives and involve water specialists in decision making. "Water is so essential and cross-cutting that it must be an integral part of the planning and investments of all sectors and all stakeholders", he said.

Stating that there cannot be development without water security, the UNESCO chief said water must be given higher priority on the development agenda. "Developing countries themselves need to increase investment in water and systematically integrate water in poverty reduction strategies. The international community must also dramatically scale up its support", he added.

Disclaimer: Girish Chadha is a freelance journalist and takes no responsibility for the views expressed in the article. The article published does not in anyway reflect the opinion of


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