Water Scarcity Could Affect Billions: Is This the Biggest Crisis of All?
by Michael McCarthy

Glug-glug: Not normally a sound of foreboding. But mankind's most serious challenge in the 21st century might not be war or hunger or disease or even the collapse of civic order, a UN report says; it may be the lack of fresh water.

Population growth, pollution and climate change, all accelerating, are likely to combine to produce a drastic decline in water supply in the coming decades, according to the World Water Development Report, published today. And of course that supply is already problematic for up to a third of the world's population.

At present 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water and 2.4 billion lack access to proper sanitation, nearly all of them in the developing countries. Yet the fact that these figures are likely to worsen remorselessly has not been properly grasped by the world community, the report says. "Despite widely available evidence of the crisis, political commitment to reverse these trends has been lacking."

Faced with "inertia at the leadership level and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem", the global water crisis will reach unprecedented heights in the years ahead, the report says, with growing per capita scarcity in many parts of the developing world. And that means hunger, disease and death.

The report makes an alarming prediction. By the middle of the century, it says that, in the worst case, no fewer than seven billion people in 60 countries may be faced with water scarcity, although if the right policies are followed this may be brought down to two billion people in 48 nations.

The report is intended as an alarm call, launched in advance of the World Water Forum taking place in Kyoto, Japan this month, when it is hoped that governments and policy makers will make a new commitment to get to grips with the water problem internationally. That, sadly, seems unlikely, especially if the United States and Britain have just invaded Iraq and the world is convulsed by war.

A big difficulty with water is that, at least in the rich West, it is largely taken for granted. After all, it is the most widely-occurring substance, most of the planet being H2O. But the words of Coleridge are apposite: "Water, water everywhere", as the Ancient Mariner said, "Nor any drop to drink".

Although water is the commonest stuff on earth, only 2.53 per cent of it is fresh, while the rest is salt. And of the freshwater, two thirds is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover. What is available, in lakes, rivers, aquifers (ground water) and rainfall run-off, is now increasingly coming under pressure from several directions at once.

Population growth is the prime driver. The soaring of human numbers to more than six billion by the millennium meant that water consumption almost doubled in half a century. Between 1970 and 1990 available per capita water supply decreased by one third. Even though birth rates are now slowing, world population is still likely to increase by half as much again, to about 9.3 billion by 2050.

Demand, of course, comes not just from the need to drink, the need to wash and the need to deal with human waste, enormous though these are; the really great calls on water supply come from industry in the developed world, and, in the developing world, from agriculture. Irrigating crops in hot dry countries accounts for 70 per cent of all the water use in the world.

Pollution, from industry, agriculture and not least, human waste, adds another fierce pressure. About two million tons of waste are dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams, with one liter of waste water sufficient to pollute about eight liters of fresh water. Today's report estimates that across the world there are about 12,000 cubic kilometers of waste water, which is more than the total amount contained in the world's 10 largest river basins at any given moment. Therefore, it suggests, if pollution keeps pace with population growth, the world will in effect lose 18,000 cubic kilometers by 2050 almost nine times the amount all countries currently use for irrigation.

All that's bad enough. But increasing the stress on water supply still further will be climate change, which UN scientists calculate will probably account for about a fifth of the increase in water scarcity. While rainfall is predicted to get heavier in winter in high latitudes, such as Britain and northern Europe, in many drought-prone countries and even some tropical regions it is predicted to decrease further; and water quality will worsen with rising pollution levels and water temperatures.

Yet another difficulty will be the growing urbanization of the world: at present, 48 per cent of the Earth's population lives in towns and cities; by 2030 this will be 60 per cent. Urban areas often have more readily available water supplies than rural ones; their problem is that they concentrate wastes. As the report notes: "Where good waste management is lacking, urban areas are among the world's most life-threatening environments."

The direst, direct effects of water scarcity will undoubtedly be on health. The presence of water can be a bane as well as a benefit: Water-related diseases are among the commonest causes of illness and death. Water-borne illnesses, such as gastric infections leading to diarrhea, are caused by drinking contaminated water; vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, are passed on by the mosquitoes and small snails that use water to breed. Millions contract such diseases. In the year 2000, the number of people estimated to have died from water/sanitation associated diseases was 2.2 million, a million of them from malaria. The majority of victims were aged under five.

The world's soaring demand for fresh water is also causing increasing environmental stress; the stream flows of about 60 per cent of the world's largest rivers have been interrupted by dams and, of the creatures associated with inland waters, 24 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened. About 10 per cent of freshwater fish species have been studied in detail and about a third of these are thought to be threatened.

But the one hopeful note the report strikes is on the much-discussed possibility of "water wars". It says: "While water scarcity will intensify conflicts between states, there is little evidence to suggest that these situations will explode into fully fledged water wars." The report quotes a study that looked at every water-related interaction between two or more countries over the past 50 years.

Of the 1,831 interactions, the great majority, 1,228, were co-operative. Of the 507 "conflictive" events, only 37 involved violence, of which 21 consisted of military acts (18 between Israel and its neighbors).

Yet the main picture is a distinctly gloomy one of a vital but limited human resource subject to increasingly unsatisfiable demands. "Of all the social and natural crises we humans face," said Koichiro Matsuura, the director general of Unesco, which has produced the report, "the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth."


2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd