SPECIAL REPORT: UN demands action on water for food

Posted: 1 February 2005

The need to invest more in rainfed and irrigated farming, to produce 'more crops per drop' of water, is a key theme the UN International Conference on Water for Food and Ecosystems, being held The Hague this week.

Huge financial investments for this purpose are needed if the goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 is to reached, said David Harcharik, Deputy Director General of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which organised the meeting with the Dutch government.

While population is expected to grow from nearly 6.5 billion to 9 billion people by 2050, food demand is expected to double, he said. This was putting huge pressure on fresh water systems, not only for agriculture but for the competing needs of the earth's natural ecosystems, including clean water for human use, timber, biodiversity and flood control. Already, 30 per cent of irrigated lands are degraded, while water use is expected to increase by 50 per cent over the next 30 years.

In the special report below Henrylito Tacio describes what water shortages mean in a country like the Philippines, with a fast growing population and deforested watersheds.

Looming, impending, worsening - these are the words used to describe the water crisis which the Philippines is now facing.

"The image of a water-rich Philippines is a mirage," declares Gregory Ira, former head of the Water Equity in the Lifescape and Landscape Study of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Silang, Cavite. "There is a water crisis in the Philippines, one of the wettest countries of Southeast Asia."

The water crisis is most transparent in Metro Manila, home to more than 10 million people. "For many residents in Metro Manila, coping with a 'water supply crisis' has been part of their daily woes for years," says the databank and research centre of the IBON Foundation Inc.

But, the biggest user of water is agriculture with 86 per cent of the total used followed by industry with 8 per cent and only 6 per cent for domestic use.Filipinos consume 310 to 507 mcm of water everyday but not everyone has access to water.

Most of the country's water is supplied by rainfall, which is unevenly distributed. "Despite an average annual rainfall of 2.36 metres the distribution of rain is not even throughout the country. The Southern Tagalog region has the most freshwater available while the Western Visayas region has the least" says Dr. Rafael Guerrero, executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

Denuded watersheds

"We cannot talk of providing sustainable water to the people unless we protect the sources of the commodity - the watersheds," said Gozun during the Earth Day Celebration in Puerto Princesa City last year.

In a report a couple of years ago, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said that 90 per cent of the 99 watershed areas in the country were "hydrologically critical" due to their degraded physical condition. Massive destruction of the once-productive forested watersheds by loggers - both legal and illegal - and uncontrolled land use from mining, overgrazing, agricultural expansion, and industrialization have contributed to water depletion.

"From a high of 15 million hectares decades ago, the country has only about 5.4 million hectares of forestlands left," Guzon said.

Deforestation has also resulted to enormous soil erosion, which exacerbates the destruction of watershed areas. At least two provinces - Cebu and Batangas - have lost more than 80 per cent of their topsoil to erosion. In Luzon, the four major basins (Bicol, Magat, Pampanga, and Agno) are in critical condition due to acute soil erosion and sedimentation.

Rampant logging

The rampant cutting of trees has also significantly reduced the volume of groundwater available for domestic purposes. Cebu, which has zero forest cover, is 99 per cent dependent on groundwater. As a result, more than half of the towns and cities in Cebu Province, excluding Metro Cebu, have no access to potable water, according to a study conducted in Central Visayas.

In Metro Manila, the water tables are being drawn down at the rate of 6 to 12 metres a year causing saline water intrusion along the coastal areas.

River pollution has added to the country's water problem. The Philippine Urban Sewerage and Sanitation classifies 37 out of 418 rivers in the country as polluted while the rest were seriously polluted. Eleven rivers were considered "biologically dead."

Fifty-two per cent of the country's water pollution load is attributable to domestic wastes, while industry accounts for 48 per cent.

Changing weather patterns worldwide also contribute to the crisis. One such thing is the El Niño phenomenon, which is associated with unusually warm water that occasionally forms across much of the tropical eastern and central Pacific. In weak to moderate El Niño events, rainfall tends to be somewhat less than normal.

"A great number of the population in Metro Manila and other urban centres like the cities of Cebu and Baguio perennially face water shortages particularly in the summer months and more so during the El Niño episode," says Dr. Guerrero.

Recently, the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration warned that the drier conditions in the latter part of 2004 are likely to be followed by slightly warmer-than-normal temperatures in the first half of 2005. Already, some reports show that southern Mindanao is experiencing a drier than normal climate, along with some parts of northern Luzon and eastern Visayas.

Water-borne diseases

There is more bad news. Statistics from the Department of Health showed only 76.3 per cent of the 13,923,267 households throughout the country have access to safe water supply and around 69.3 per cent or have sanitary toilets.

As the lack of sanitary toilet facilities lead to water contamination and water-borne diseases, the health department has reported that in 1999 and 2000,diarrhoea was the top cause of morbidity in the country, with 866,411 cases in 2000, down by 4.6 per cent from 908,454 cases in 1999.

Of course, this reflects the wider global problem. According to the United Nations some 1.2 billion people around the globe live without access to safe water and 2.5 billion are without sanitation, vulnerable to deadly diseases ranging from diarrhoea and dysentery to cholera, typhoid and insect-borne illness.

"All of these diseases are associated with our failure to provide clean water," deplored Dr. Peter H. Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development,Environment and Security. "I think it's terribly bleak, especially because we know what needs to be done to prevent these deaths. We're doing someof it, but the efforts that are being made are not aggressive enough."

Reviewer: Henrylito Tacio

Reviewer Info: Henrylito Tacio is an award-winning environmental journalist and People & the Planet Contributing Editor in South East Asia.