Melting glaciers threaten world's water supplies

Posted: 27 July 2006

Climate change and falling water tables are having a dramatic effect on the world's water resources. And the rapid melting of the planet's glaciers is making the problem even more serious, writes Satu Hassi, a Member of the European Parliament.

Satu Hassi
Satu Hassi
A few years ago, I read an article on mountains. It began by saying that we consider mountains to be something very robust, something that lasts forever, at least in human timescales. But in fact, mountains belong to some of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world because mountain glaciers are rapidly melting.

Half the world's population depends on rivers with mountain glaciers as their freshwater source.

Himalayan glaciers feed seven great Asian rivers - the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He - ensuring a year-round water supply for two billion people.

But the Himalayan glaciers are retreating fast. Recently the Chinese academy of sciences announced that the Tibetan glaciers are shrinking by seven per cent every year, which means that these great glaciers will halve every decade.

Each year, the loss of ice is equivalent to the annual flow of the Yellow river. In the Ganges alone, this loss of glacier melt water could reduce July-September flows by two thirds, causing water shortages for 500 million people and 35 per cent of India's irrigated land.

In South America, in the dry Andes, glacial melt water contributes more to river flow than rainfall, even during the rainy season.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stop global warming is extremely important in preventing whole nations from turning thirsty - and hungry, since water is closely linked to food production.

An average person drinks four litres of water a day, but the water required to produce our daily food is much more, around 2,000 litres.

Fossil water

Unfortunately, groundwater is being used more rapidly than it is being formed. In many areas, the formation of groundwater is so slow that it is called "fossil water". Water tables are falling in countries that contain more than half of the world's population.

However, falling water tables are hidden from the public's view. Rivers that are drained dry before they reach the sea such as the Colorado in the US and the Yellow river in China are more clearly visible.

The "green revolution", which tripled the world grain harvest from 1950 to 2000, was very much based on expanding irrigation. Experts speak about the "food bubble", meaning unsustainable use of water for irrigation.

Pricing water

It seems to be fashionable to advocate privatisation of water resources as a way to stop wasting water. But we have to ensure that there is a difference between the pricing of water and privatisation.

As "free" water is wasted, just as too-cheap energy is wasted, so it makes sense to have a price for water, at least for tap water in cities, to finance building and maintenance of water infrastructure.

But what kind of price is socially acceptable in poor countries? In many countries, the poorest people do not have water pipelines in their homes; they have to buy their water in the street with the resultant high price. And there is another question.

Who should get the money? Water is a necessity for life, but once connected into a water pipeline network, consumers have little or no choice. I think that water companies in cities should be publicly owned.

Hopeful harvest

In many countries, water privatisation has meant allowing private companies to make money from fossil groundwater, for example to produce bottled drinks. When these reservoirs are empty, local communities are left without groundwater.

One phenomenon creating hope is a new grassroots movement in India, spreading so called rainwater harvesting. This revival of old traditions channels and stores rainwater during the rainy season, saving water that would otherwise just flow rapidly into the sea.

In many villages, this has been successful. For me, it seems that local cooperatives are a suitable way to organise this, not private firms.

Satu Hassi MEP is a former Finnish environment minister and a vice chair of the European parliament's environment committee.

Related links:

Water policy: EU challenges

Privatisation sends water bills soaring in Tanzania

Water crisis getting worse, says UN

Changes to 'roof of the world' threatens millions

Equatorial African icecaps melting away