UN warns of threat to water

March 12, 2009 12:00 am

, PARIS Mar 12 – Surging population growth, climate change, reckless irrigation and chronic waste are placing the world’s water supplies at threat, according to a landmark UN report.

Compiled by 24 UN agencies, the 348-page document gave a grim assessment of the state of the planet’s freshwater, especially in developing countries, and described the outlook for coming generations as deeply worrying.

Water is part of the complex web of factors that determine prosperity and stability, it said.

Lack of access to water helps drive poverty and deprivation and breeds the potential for unrest and conflict, it warned.

"Water is linked to the crises of climate change, energy and food supplies and prices, and troubled financial markets," the third World Water Development Report said.

"Unless their links with water are addressed and water crises around the world are resolved, these other crises may intensify and local water crises may worsen, converging into a global water crisis and leading to political insecurity at various levels."

The report pointed to a double squeeze on fresh water.

On one side was human impact. There were six billion humans in 2000, a tally that has already risen to 6.5 billion and could scale nine billion by 2050.

Population growth, especially in cities in poor countries, is driving explosive demand for water, prompting rivers in thirsty countries to be tapped for nearly every drop and driving governments to pump out so-called fossil water, the report said.

These are aquifers that are hundreds of thousands of years old and whose extraction is not being replenished by rainfall. Mining them for water today means depriving future generations of liquid treasure.

Fuelling this is misuse or abuse of water, through pollution, unbridled irrigation, pipe leakage and growing of water-craving crops in deserts.

Applying pressure from the other side is climate change, said the report.

Shifts to weather systems, unleashed by man-made global warming, will alter rainfall patterns and reduce snow melt, scientists say.

The water report was first issued in 2003 and is updated every three years. The latest issue, entitled "Water in a Changing World," is published ahead of the fifth World Water Forum, taking place in Istanbul from March 16 to 22.

The mammoth document made these points:

– 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 percent 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.

– In the past 50 years, EXTRACTION from rivers, lakes and aquifers has tripled to help meet population growth and demands for water-intensive food such as rice, cotton, dairy and meat products. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the withdrawals, a figure that reaches more than 90 percent in some developing countries.

– ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION from water pollution and excessive extraction now costs many billions of dollars. Damage in the Middle East and North Africa, the world’s most water-stressed region, amounts to some nine billion dollars a year, or between 2.1-7.4 percent of GDP.

– The outlook is mixed for key UN MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS, which in 2000 set 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.

– Water stress, amplified by climate change, will pose a mounting SECURITY CHALLENGE. The struggle for water could threaten fragile states and drive regional rivalry.

"Conflicts about water can occur at all scales," the report warned, adding: "Hydrologic shocks that may occur through climate change increase the risk of major national and international security threats, especially in unstable areas."

– Between 92.4 billion and 148 billion dollars are needed annually in INVESTMENT to build and maintain water supply systems, sanitation and irrigation. China and developed countries in Asia alone face financial needs of 38.2-51.4 billion dollars each year.

– CONSERVATION and reuse of water, including recycled sewage, are the watchwords of the future. The report also stressed sustainable water management, with realistic PRICING to curb waste. It gave 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.


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