Water crisis getting worse, says UN

Posted: 17 March 2006

Author: John Rowley

Almost one person in five of the world's population still has no access to safe drinking water and four of every ten do not have basic sanitation, says a UN report which will be presented to the World Water Forum in Mexico City next week. And the global aim to halve the numbers without safe water supplies by 2015 will not be reached, it says, unless there is an improvement in the way water is managed.

The problem is especially acute in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where 40 per cent of the population has no access to clean water, the UN World Water Development Report says. At the current rate of progress these regions will not meet the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. Nor, if current trends persist, will the global aim of halving the proportion of people without basic sanitation be met.

"At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Earth, with its diverse and abundant life forms, including over six billion humans, is facing a serious water crisis. All the signs suggest that it is getting worse and will continue to do so, unless corrective action is taken" the report, entitled Water a Shared Responsibility says.

The report, put together by 23 UN agencies headed by UNESCO, says the crisis is one of water governance, essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water. "But the real tragedy is the effect it has on the everyday lives of poor people, who are blighted by the burden of water-related disease, living in degraded and often dangerous environments, struggling to get an education for their children and to earn a living, and to get enough to eat.

Waste mountain

"The crisis is experienced also by the natural environment, which is groaning under the mountain of wastes dumped onto it daily, and from overuse and misuse, with seemingly little care for the future consequences and future generations. In truth it is attitude and behaviour problems that lie at the heart of the crisis. We know most (but not all) of what theproblems are and a good deal about where they are. We have knowledge and expertise to begin to tackle them...Yet inertia at leadership level, and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem (and in many cases not sufficiently be empowered to do much about it) means we fail to take the needed timely corrective actions and put the concepts to work."

These environmental problems are made more difficult, it says, by changes to the global climate. River and groundwater levels are falling in many regions because of lower rainfall and greater evaporation.

The rapid growth of towns and cities in the developing world is also affecting people's ability to access water, as governments and local authorities find that they cannot expand the service networks to meet the needs of growing urban populations. [Largely as a result of urban demands on agriculture and industry, world water use increased sixfold in the 20th century, twice as fast as population growth.]

The report says that though progress has been made in recent years, only 12 per cent of nations have managed to meet a deadline to introduce an effective water strategy by 2005.

Survival issue

The problem is part of a broader set of challenges facing mankind it says, "Yet of all the social and natural resource crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth.

"For humanity, the poverty of a large percentage of the world's population is both a symptom and a cause of the water crisis. Giving the poor better access to better managed water can make a big contribution to poverty eradication, as The World Water Development Report will show. Such better management will enable us to deal with the growing per capita scarcity of water in many parts of the developing world."

Other findings of the report include:

  • Water quality is declining in many regions. This is effecting the diversity of freshwater species and ecosystems
  • Around 3.1 million people died in 2002 as a result of diarrhoeal diseases and malaria, of whom 90 per cent where children.
  • The world will require 55 per cent more food by 2030. This will increase the demand for irrigation which already accounts for 70 per cent of the fresh water use by humans.
  • In many countries 30 to 40 per cent of the available water is being lost through leakages and illegal extraction.
  • Political corruption is thought to be costing the water sector millions of dollars every year and is undermining services.

Opening the Water Forum this week, Mexican President Vicente Fox said: "Water is endangered and so are we. For the situation made for water in the world is unacceptable.

"Unacceptable is the lack of water or its poor quality which, last year. caused the 10 times more deaths than all the wars waged on the planet together."

Carlos Fernandez-Jauregui, deputy co-coordinator of the UN World Water Assessment Programme, interviewed by the BBC, said he hoped the report would push governments and organisations into action. "If we continue business as usual the water crisis will get worse - not only in developing countries but also in developed countries. We ignore this at our peril."

The UN World Water Development Report will be presented to the World Water Forum on World Water Day on March 22, 2006. To read more about the report, or download the executive summary and other information from it, click here.

For more information on People and Water see:Freshwater: lifeblood of the planet