WATER FORUM: Water supply is failing to meet rising demand

Posted: 17 March 2009

Global demand for water is bigger than it has ever been, while water supplies are already near their limits in many countries, delegates to the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul were told at the opening session today.

Adding to the demand for water is population growth, rising living standards and changed food consumption patterns and the demands of biofuel production, said a UN report on the planet's water resources presentedd by UNESCO on behalf of many UN agencies.

Global energy demands are expected to grow by as much as 55 per cent by 2030,m nearly half of this in China and India. Hydropower alone is expected to grow by 60 per cent from 2004-2030.

"With increasing shortages, good governance is more than ever essential for water management. Combating poverty also depends on our ability to invest in this resource," said the Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura.

But corruption is eating into the efficient development of these resources, he said. It may account for a $50 billion rise in the cost of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Some 30 per cent of water-related budgets are being siphoned off by corrupt deals, including falsified meter readings, nepotism and favouritism in the award of contracts.

UN goals

The report said the world is on track to meet the drinking Millennium water goal, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, about 340 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.

But the world sanitation target is far from being met. Half a billion people lack access to adequate sanitation in Africa alone. Efforts will have to be doubled if the UN goals are to be met.

The report makes clear the link between poverty and water resources, with those living on less than US$1.25 a day roughly equal to the number without access to safe drinking water.

The impact on health is enormous,with almost 80 percent of diseases in developing countries associated with water, causing some three million early deaths. About one in ten of all illnesses worldwide could be avoided by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources, the report shows.

Dam protest

Reaction to the report, and to the conference, has been mixed with some development agencies seing the occasion as one dominated by the interests of the big water multinationals, including those intent on building ever more dams. Indeed, two members of the California-based advocacy group International Rivers were arrested after raising a banner protesting about risky dam building. They face deportation - or a year in Turkish prison.

WWF welcomed the report's call for better governance and management of water and its observation that while the water sector is often taking more responsible approach to management "the key decisions about water are taken outside the water sector".

"The report is relatively sympathetic to solutions that involve pouring concrete, without giving due recognition to the problems caused by the concrete pouring of the past," said Dr Lifeng Li, Director of Freshwater at WWF International.

"We would have liked to see more emphasis on the importance of providing enough water for natural systems to keep functioning in order to keep providing water.

"One key contribution to water supplies running short in many areas is that the natural environmental assets that protect and purify water and help us cope with floods and droughts have been degraded through over-use and pollution.

Freshwater systems

The report notes that climate change will worsen the water situation in many already short countries but offers few pointers for adapting to this challenge.

"The key lesson of WWF's on the ground work is that what best protects and improves the functioning of freshwater systems now is what will best protect them from climate change impacts in the future,"

The report also raises the likelihood of conflict over water between countries, regions and urban and rural users.

"We also find it puzzling that a report predicting more water conflict between countries fails to mention the ratification and implementation of an existing UN treaty that would provide a basis for countries to share and jointly manage waters on their borders."

The UN Watercourses Convention, approved by an overwhelming majority of countries in 1997, still lacks enough signatories to come into effect. The 263 water basins shared between two or more countries drain half the world's land surface, account for nearly two thirds of global freshwater flows and are vital to the water supplies of 40 per cent of the world's population.

"Indeed, the convention fails to even gain a specific mention in UN Water's brochure for World Water Day this coming Sunday, which is on the theme of transboundary waters," Dr Li said.

The World Water Forum is being attended by over 20,000 delegates including those from development banks, engineering associations, academic institutions, aid and environmental organizations, UN agencies, national and local government agencies, and dam construction companies. The Forum is a member organisation organised by the World Water Council. It meets every three years.