Fixing the global water crisis needs more than taps and toilets

Posted: 1 August 2002

Author: Jamie Pittock

Government leaders meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development will take decisions that shape how water is managed over the next ten years. The conservation organisation, WWF, is concerned that Summit preparations have so far only focused on water delivery and sanitation, while ignoring the crucial issue of water supply.

The world is facing a freshwater crisis. People already use over half the world's accessible freshwater, and may use nearly three-quarters by 2025. Women in IndiaMaldhari women carrying water near Sasan Gir Gujarat, India.© Mauri Rautkari/WWF-Canon Over 1.5 billion people lack ready access to drinking water and, if current consumption patterns continue, at least 3.5 billion people - nearly half the world's projected population - will live in water-stressed river basins in just 20 years.

On top of this, contamination denies some 3.3 billion people access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people have no water sanitation services. In developing countries an estimated 90 per cent of wastewater is discharged without treatment into rivers and streams. Each year there are about 250 million cases of water-related diseases, with some 5-10 million deaths.

Ecosystems threatened

Not only people are threatened by water shortages and pollution. Freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the greatest concentration of species, are amongst the most vulnerable on Earth.

Half the world's wetlands have been destroyed in the last 100 years. Two-fifths of the world's fish are freshwater species - and of these, 20 per cent are threatened, endangered, or have become extinct in recent decades. In North America, freshwater animals are the most endangered wildlife group, dying out five times faster than species on land.

Water is an issue that affects us all. It is vital that world leaders meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) come up with a plan to address the world's dwindling freshwater resources. But in a 21st century version of the cargo cult, it seems our leaders believe that the global crisis can be solved by building more taps and toilets - 750 million and 1.25 billion more, respectively, by 2015 under the draft WSSD Plan of Implementation - without actually ensuring there is any water available to make them work.

Improved water distribution and sanitation services are obviously needed to help combat poverty, disease, and pollution. However, water shortages in many countries are primarily due to poor management: water sources have not been conserved and water is not used efficiently. These problems are not limited to developing countries. The Colorado River in North America and Murray River in Australia are amongst the Earth's major rivers that are regularly sucked dry.

Poor management

Degradation of water sources leads to less freshwater being available, and is largely due to poor management of river basins. Culprits include deforestation and overgrazing, which lead to erratic water runoff and desertification. Water diversion and inefficient water use are also a problem.

Irrigated agricultural systems, which consume 70 per cent of the world's diverted water, lose up to 80 per cent of their water through leakage in earthern channels and inefficient application onto fields. In developing countries, up to half the water delivered to cities is lost in leaking pipes. Water is also lost through unchecked spread of exotic weeds and inappropriate, and often subsidised, agricultural practises such as growing water-thirsty crops in dry areas.

Problems with water diversions are often exacerbated where ground water or rivers cross political borders, and where there are no effective water sharing agreements. An infamous example is the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the governments of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq compete to use as much water as possible.

Although dams can now divert all of the flow of these rivers, 20 more dams are under construction. In the meantime, the Mesopotamian Marshes - which once covered an area nearly half the size of Switzerland and were central to the livelihoods of the half a million Ma'dan or Marsh Arab people - have been all but destroyed.

Food security

Conserving freshwater ecosystems through better management would not only help maintain the amount of water available, but also its quality. Streamside forests and wetlands can purify water by trapping pollutants. In addition, a major cause of the spread of malaria and water-borne diseases such as schistosomiasis, for example, is the expansion of dams and irrigation schemes.

Healthy freshwater ecosystems also enhance food security. In Africa, 21 per cent of the population's protein comes from freshwater fisheries. These fisheries are destroyed by dams, but could be improved through better habitat management. Furthermore, traditional sustainable ways of growing food crops that work with nature, such as planting on floodplains after annual floods recede, are being lost to ineffective irrigation developments.woman, Central NigerPeul (Wodaabe) lady filling waterskins in temporary pool, Central Niger.© John E. Newby/WWF-Canon Despite the many benefits of river basin conservation and efficient water use, these have only been mentioned rhetorically in WSSD preparations to date, without any serious commitments by governments to targeted and measurable actions.

Targets opposed

Nothing in the draft plan will prevent more rivers from being over-exploited. Indeed, two blocks of governments are openly antagonistic to measurable progress in conserving water bodies.

The United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia are objecting to the adoption of measurable targets and funding allocations for sustainable water management, while a small group of influential developing countries led by Turkey is seeking to prevent agreements for managing international or transboundary rivers, fearful that they may constrain their plans to fully exploit rivers in their territories.

To further complicate matters, some organizations are arguing that the solution to the world's water problems lie in establishing new agreements and institutions. However, the disputes and legal problems currently slowing implementation of the environmental treaties born at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit do not bode well for a new water treaty, which is not really necessary - there are already existing institutions for sustainable management of freshwater which, if embraced by the international community, could lead to immediate improvements in global water management.

Sharing care

One way to conserve water sources and ensure equitable sharing is to establish and enhance stewardship programmes for managing individual rivers and water bodies. Such initiatives bring together governments and stakeholders to share water and look after the river basin environment in order to sustain water quantity and quality and to conserve fish and other resources.

An example is the Murray Darling Basin Commission in Australia, which brings together six state governments and the community. Following growing and unsustainable diversion of water - now at 80 per cent of the river's flow - in 1996 the Commission facilitated a decision to cap water extractions, requiring new commercial water users to be supplied from efficiency savings rather than new diversions.

River basin organizations have the added benefit of promoting international cooperation, peace, and security. There are 261 major transboundary water bodies, many without an effective, or even any, cooperative management organization. These should be a priority for international efforts in establishing stewardship programmes.

Governments should also remember that there is already a successful international treaty for promoting wise use of freshwater ecosystems that includes a framework for sustainable development, conservation, and poverty alleviation.

Supporting Ramsar

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which includes 133 nations as members, is a model for transparent and effective multinational action to conserve freshwater habitats. More than most other agreements, it actively engages government, non-government, and multilateral agencies in partnerships to enhance cooperation and joint work, and focuses on the importance of engaging local and indigenous peoples in conservation.

Despite embodying all that the WSSD wishes to achieve, the Ramsar Convention receives just one rhetorical reference in the draft WSSD Plan of Implementation. In the same way that other Conventions have been specifically singled out, the mandate of and funding for the Ramsar Convention should also be enhanced in the draft plan to allow it to do even more towards sustaining the vital role of wetlands in providing water for people and nature.

There is still time for government leaders to address the critical issue of conserving the world's scarce freshwater supplies. Hopefully, the final WSSD Plan of Implementation will adopt simple and practical targets for conserving water sources and using water more efficiently.

Jamie Pittock is Director of WWF International's Living Waters Programme

WWF's Living Waters Programme is a global response to the world's fast-degrading freshwater. For further information about it see: WWF