Political inertia causing world water crisis, says UN

Posted: 1 April 2003

A recent United Nations report warns that the world's water crisis could reach unprecedented levels if political inertia to tackle the problem continues to persist.

The report, Water for People, Water for Life, the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR) was compiled by no less than 23 UN agencies and issued on the eve of the World Water Forum in March 2003. It claims to be the most definitive and up to date overview on the current state of this precious resource.

Currently just over one billion people lack a reliable supply of water while 2.4 billion people - or just under half the world's population - have no adequate sanitation. As a result, more than 2.2 billion people die each year from diseases owing to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation. Everyday around 6,000 people, mainly children under the age of five, die from diarrheal diseases. But despite these startling figures, the report warns that water resources will steadily decline because of population growth, pollution and expected climate change.

At the heart of the crisis, says the report, lies "inertia at leadership level, and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem." Despite a string of international conferences over the past 25 years focusing on water issues "hardly any" targets pledged by governments "have been met".

Water shortages

Many countries and territories are already in a state of crisis. The report ranks over 180 countries and territories in terms of the amount of renewable water resources available per capita, meaning all of the water circulating on the surface, in the soil or deeper underground (see chart).

The poorest in terms of water availability is Kuwait (where 10 m³ is available per person each year) followed by Gaza Strip (52 m³), United Arab Emirates (58 m³), Bahamas (66 m³), Qatar (94 m³), Maldives (103 m³), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (113 m³), Saudi Arabia (118 m³), Malta (129 m³) and Singapore (149 m³).

The report warns that by the the middle of this century, at worst seven billion people in 60 countries will be faced with water scarcity, at best 2 billion in 48 countries, depending on factors like population growth and policy-making. Climate change will account for an estimated 20 per cent of this increase in global water scarcity. 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.

Water pollution

Human pollution is one of the main factors seriously undermining the quality and availability of freshwater, says the report. About 2 million tons of waste are dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams. One litre of wastewater pollutes about eight litres of freshwater. The report estimates that there is around 12,000 km³ of polluted water worldwide, which is more than the total amount contained in the world's ten largest river basins at any given moment.

If pollution keeps pace with population growth, the world will effectively lose 18,000 km³ of freshwater by 2050 - almost nine times the total amount countries currently use each year for irrigation, which is by far the largest consumer of the resource. Irrigation currently accounts for 70 per cent of all water withdrawals worldwide.

Invariably it is the poor which continue to be the worst affected, "with 50 per cent of the population in developing countries exposed to polluted water sources," says the report.

Population pressures

Population growth will continue to be a driving factor in the water crisis. Per capita water supplies decreased by a third between 1970 and 1990, according to the report. Even though birth rates are slowing down, the world's population should still reach about 8.9 billion by 2050 (compared to 6.1 billion of 2001).

For the first time, every UN agency and commission dealing with water has worked jointly to monitor progress against water-related targets in fields such as health, food, ecosystems, cities, industry, energy, risk management, economic evaluation, resource sharing and governance. The 23 UN partners constitute the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), whose secretariat is hosted by UNESCO.

With more than 25 world maps, numerous charts, graphs and seven case studies of major river basins, the report analyzes how diverse societies cope with water scarcity, including policies that work or don't work. The report was formally presented to the international community on World Water Day, March 22nd, during the World Water Forum in Kyoto.

"Of all the crises we humans face, the water crisis is one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth," says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.

Related links:

Water for People, Water for Life (executive summary of report in several languages).

World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP)

The International Year of Water 2003