Editor's blog: Water woes

Posted: 13 October 2009

In a despatch from Sanaa, capital of Yemen, Reuter correspondent Alistair Lyon, described the grim water outlook for the city's two million people. Those who do receive piped water get it only once or twice a week. Others get none at all. And the sinking water table means that 80 of the city's 180 wells have run dry.

Yet Sanaa, which has grown from a sleepy town of some 50,000 people in the last 50 years, is one of the world's fastest growing cities. It adds 8 per cent to its population every year - of which 5 per cent are driven there as migrants from the parched countryside.

World Bank expert Abu Hatim dismisses the government's strategy to improve the country's water resources (backed by aid donors), as a palliative measure that will buy time but not solve the problem. "The catastrophe is coming but we don't know when," he says. (See: Water crisis threatens Yemen's swelling population.)

Egypt faces rising sea levels
Egypt faces rising sea levels
Egyptian farmers have lived off the land of the Nile Delta for generations. But the overpopulated region faces rising sea levels and one of the most severe threats of flooding and famine in the world. Photograph © Jason Larkin
It is a story repeated in varying degrees across the developing world, as the latest reports in this website show. Most striking perhaps is Jack Shenker's report from the Nile delta, the breadbasket of Egypt, providing 60 per cent of Egypt's food. There, climate change, sea rise, coastal erosion and the reduced flow of fresh Nile water are allied to overcrowding, rapid population growth and pollution to create what the head of the American University in Cairo's Desert Development Centre calls "a perfect storm." (See Death of the Nile: Egypt's climate change crisis).

Of course, the Nile delta is not alone, as a climate, water and population hotspot. The drought in East Africa is affecting not only the Maasai pastoralists of Kenya and Ethiopia, but those living in the Tana Delta wetlands of Kenya. In West Africa the Niger Delta, with a quarter of Nigeria's rapidly growing population, is struggling with the twin problems of sea encroachment and failing rainfall. (See: Drought threatens future of Kenya's Maasai people, Water shortage threatens two million in southern Iraq, African deltas suffer early impact of climate change.)

Asia, in turn, faces an unprecedented food crisis unless hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in better irrigation systems, says a joint report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Water Management Institute. With very little land left for cultivation, water supplies stretched to the limit and a population that will double Asia's demand for food by 2050, a new generation of irrigation is urgently needed. But with water tables dropping catastrophically in many parts of India and China and the uncertain impact of melting Himalayan glaciers, the challenge is huge. (See: Water crisis threatens famine in Asia, says UN.)

Washing hands: schoolchildren in Vietnam
Washing hands: schoolchildren in Vietnam
Hand-washing prevents sickness: schoolchildren in Vietnam. Photo © UNICEF/HQ99-0812/Lemoyne
Nor will large scale technical solutions be sufficient to meet the needs of thousands of small farmers and the 2.6 million people without access to sanitation, a situation that kills over 5000 children daily, and causes the illnesses that fill half of the hospital beds in the developing world. Yet, at the current rate of progress, the World Water Week meeting in Stockholm was told, the Millennium Development Goal for sanitation will be missed by more than 700 million people, leaving still 2.4 billion people without adequate sanitation by 2015. (See: Sanitation is world's 'most urgent problem'.)

Faced with this challenge the experts meeting in Stockholm last month concluded unanimously that water must be included in the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December. Integrating land, water and forest management was the key to successful climate change adaptation, they said. It's a tall order for negotiators whose minds are already turning to a Plan B, if greenhouse gas reduction targets cannot be agreed between developed and developing governments. What about bringing population back into the picture too, and really getting down to work?

John Rowley

PS: Planet 21 supports Franny Armstrong's 10/10 campaign, which aims to get the UK public and the UK government to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. To explain the campaign Franny has made a video for The Guardian, which we are happy to link to here with acknowledgements and thanks to that newspaper.

Please see also our write up of a new tve film on the much neglected Congo conflict, which is impacting so tragically on the women of this benighted land, and the accompanying video.

And do please see WWF's important report on the impact of climate change in the Arctic - warming twice as fast as elsewhere in the world with potentially catastrophic consequences. To watch a question and answer video with climate expert Dr Martin Sommerkorn, click here. (QuickTime required).