Water crisis 'already here'

Posted: 15 April 2002

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

Author Info: Henrylito Tacio is People & the Planet correspondent in the Philippines.

If the world fought for oil in the 20th century, the war will be about water in the 21st century. So says Dick de Jong, advocacy officer of the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre based in Delft, The Netherlands.

"Already today, with a world population of 6.1 billion, lack of water is a pressing problem in developing countries," says Jong, who sees the impact of steady population growth on water availability is an increasing challenge. "As the population continues to grow - expected to exceed 9 billion in the next 50 years - the demand for water may become acute," he said in an interview with People & the Planet.

The State of World Population 2001 published by the UN Population Fund, reports that 54 per cent of the annual available freshwater is being used worldwide. If consumption per person remains steady, by 2025 the world could be using 70 per cent of the total because of population growth alone.

"If per capita consumption everywhere reached the level of more developed countries, we could be using 90 per cent of the available water by 2025," the UN report states. "Such extrapolations assume no change in the efficiency of water use."

Signs of water crisis abound. In Metro Manila, capital of the Philippines, for instance, there was a time that the water agency issued a call for public prayer to ask Almighty God for the rains to come. Even during the rainy season, supply of potable water is still inadequate. As the country is bracing for another El Niño, water crisis would become a big headache in the metropolis.

"In some urban centres," reports Jong, "demand for water not only threatens to exceed the supply, but the quality of the water itself is also a concern." In Thailand and Malaysia, water pollution is so heavy that rivers often contain 30-100 times more pathogens, heavy metals, and poisons from industry and agriculture than is permitted by government standards.

Most of those who will be greatly affected with water crisis are those living in the cities. "Water is going to be the most hotly-contested urban issue facing the world community in the 21st century," observed Wally N'Dow, Secretary-General of the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996.

Credit: FAOA number of developed, water-short countries have also faced tensions over water, including Belgium, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Singapore. In the western United States, there is tension between farmers who want more irrigation water for their crops and urban dwellers who want more for municipal use.

Water shortages could make China the world's leading grain importer and raise worldwide food prices, according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. In the North China Plain, a region that produces 40 per cent of the country's grain, the water table is dropping by 1.5 metres per year. In addition, a 60 per cent increase in both urban and domestic and industrial water demand will divert irrigation water from agriculture.

Experts claim that improper irrigation practices could worsen the water problem by turning fertile land into deserts. "In order to unleash the full potential of irrigation, we must recognize that irrigation is a service which should provide water to farmers as conveniently and reliably as possible, who in return must pay the full cost of such a service," observed Hans Wolter, of the water resources development and management service at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food production is just one of the several parts of the equation in the water problem. Another is health. UNICEF estimates some nine million people, mostly children, die annually from water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea, schistosomiasis, malaria and intestinal worm infections.

"The toll is equal to 75 large airliner crashes daily," said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "And yet the subject of freshwater is too often crowded off the world media agenda."

UNEP also reports that 1.7 billion people have no sanitary waste disposal facilities. "Access to safe water is a fundamental human need, and therefore, a basic human right," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

This is nothing new. The first UN Water Conference was held in Argentina in 1977. The 1980s was designated as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. Ten years ago, the 1992 World Bank World development Report stated: "the top environmental priority remains improving access to clean water and sanitation," which "would be the single most means of alleviating human distress."

At the International Conference on Water and the Environment held in Dublin in 1992, four basic principles were produced, which provided the main input to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and the basis of the recommendations on protecting and managing freshwater resources contained in Agenda 21.

In 1994, FAO had chosen "Water for Life" as its theme of the World Food Day celebration in order to focus water issues that directly affect the production of food and the quality of rural life. In 2000, during the second World Water Forum in The Hague, water was put back on the political agenda when 130 ministers from around the world signed the declaration on water security.

"We must share technology, resources and goodwill to manage the earth's scarce fresh water so that deserts bloom, lakes do not die and wells do not dry," urged M.K. Muthoo, chairman of the advisory committee on World Food Day celebration in 1994.

Water is a limited non-renewable resource: a fixed amount of some 1,400 million cubic kilometres exists on the planet, which can be neither increased nor decreased. Most of this, 97.4 per cent, is salt water; another 2 per cent is locked away in ice caps and glaciers. This leaves only 0.6 per cent, or 8.4 cubic kilometres, of which some 8 million cubic kilometres are stored underground.

Put in another way, if all the earth's water were to fit in a gallon jug (4 litres), the available fresh water would be just over one tablespoon.

"The challenge at the local, regional, and global level is how to protect the Earth's limited store of freshwater, conserve its use, and improve how it is managed," says Jong. "To do this, management decisions must be based on understanding of the cycle of water."