Rivers running dry UN expert warns

Posted: 23 January 2007

A leading UN advisor has questioned whether the world's rivers can support the increasing demands for food of the growing human population.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the UN's Millennium Project told the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit that there are "no morerivers to take water from," and that India and China will not be able to feed their growing numbers unless urgent action is taken.

He said that both countries were facing severe water shortagess and neither could use the same strategies for raising food output which has fed millions in recent times. "In 2050 we will have 9 billion people and average income will be four times what it is today," he said. "India and China have been able to feed their populations because they use water in an unsustainable way. That is no longer possible."

Since Asia's agricultural revolution, the amount of land under irrigation has tripled. But many parts of the continent have reached the limits of water supplies. "The Ganges and the Yellow river no longer flow. There is so much silting up and water extraction upstream they are pretty stagnant."

The mechanisms of shrinking water resources are not well understood, he said. "We need to do for water what we did for climate change. How do we recharge aquifers? ... There's no policy anywhere in place at the moment."

Wake-up call

The conservation organisation, WWF said the speech was a wake-up call to the planet. It praised Professor Sachs for his determination to raise this issue to the international community, but said it was essential that short-term social and economic development doesn't actually exacerbate the problem by draining even more freshwater from the environment.

Only by protecting the watersheds and other natural systems that collect, clean and distribute freshwater can we provide watersecurity for the people of the world, WWF said.

"It is time for the world's leaders to recognise that without freshwater, ecological systems that we rely on will collapse," said Dr David Tickner, head of WWF-UK's Freshwater Programme.

"We need a complete overhaul of the way that the world's freshwater is managed, and the UN has already created that - a piece of legislationcalled the Water Courses Convention, which is effectively a Kyoto protocol for the world's water. But the governments of the world needto ratify it right now, or face a global crisis."

WWF has been pushing for better management ofthese lifelines for many decades - a situation that will only be made worse by the effects of climate change. In 2005 the global conservationorganisation produced Serving People, Saving Nature - a report which demonstrated the dramatic improvements in the livelihoods of poorlocal communities as a direct result of better management of scarce freshwater resources.

Source: WWF and The Guardian, January 23, 2007