World faces a thirsty future

The world will face a water crisis a few decades from now as population growth, pollution and climate change deprive billions of the most precious natural resource of all, a UN report warned on Wednesday.

“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,” Unesco Director General Koichiro Matsuura, whose agency hosted the study, said. “No region will be spared from the impact of this crisis, which touches every facet of life from the health of children to the ability of nations to secure food for their citizens.

“Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing at an unsustainable rate. Over the next 20 years, the average supply of water worldwide per person is expected to drop by a third.”

The document, the World Water Development Report, is subtitled “Water for People, Water for Life.”

Described as the most complete available assessment of the state of the world’s fresh-water supplies, it was put together by a Unesco-hosted coordinator ahead of a major conference in Japan this month, the Third World Water Forum.
“The future of many parts of the world looks bleak,” says the report.

It calculates that by 2050, between two billion people in 48 countries and up to seven billion people in 60 countries will be faced with scarcity of fresh water.

Those figures will depend crucially on population growth and government policies to curb pollution.

Even though birth rates are slowing down, the world’s population should still reach about 9,3-billion by 2050, as compared to 6,1-billion in 2001, says the report.

Pollution is a huge and worsening factor in destroying the availability of fresh water.

Every day, about two million tons of waste are dumped into rivers, lakes and streams.

At present, according to the report, there are about 12 000 square kilometers of polluted fresh water in the world, and if trends are not braked or reverse, the total will reach 18 000 sq. kms by 2050, nearly nine times the total amount currently used for irrigation.

The study adds to previous research that says global warming, driven by mankind’s reckless burning of fossil fuels, will badly hit fresh water supplies. Climate change will be responsible for a fifth of water scarcity, because rainfall patterns will change, it says.

Humid areas will probably see more rain, while it is expected to decrease and become more erratic in many drought-prone regions and even some tropical and sub-tropical regions. Water quality will worsen with rising pollution levels and water temperatures.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • mustering the “political will” to make leaders aware of the impending crisis and to honour the commitments made by their governments

  • promoting the use of treated waste water for irrigation, especially in poor countries

  • encouraging investment in water supplies and sewerage. Around $12,6-billion are needed annually in additional funds to help meet the UN’s Millennium Goals. Those aims set 2015 as the date for halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation

    The report, however, tiptoes around the controversy as to whether water supplies should be privatised. The private sector “should be seen as a financial catalyst” for

    resolving water problems, but “control of the assets and the resource should remain in the hands of the government and users,” it says.

    The Third World Water Forum takes place in Kyoto, Japan, from March 16-23. - Sapa-AFP

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