Friday, March 22, is World Water Day, with the theme Water for Development.
A looming crisis that overshadows nearly two thirds of the Earth's population is drawing closer because of continued human mismanagement of water, population growth and changing weather patterns, UN organizations said today.
By 2025, if present consumption patterns continue, about five billion people will be living in areas where it will be difficult or impossible to meet all their needs for fresh water. Half of them will face severe shortages.
The UN says that the implications will be extreme for the people most affected, who are among the world's poorest, limiting their ability to grow crops, which they need to survive, heightening disease and threatening states' national security.
"Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict," Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations said in a message for World Water Day.
"But the water problems facing our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for co-operation," Mr. Annan said.
Demand Outstripping Supply
Less than three per cent of water on Earth is fresh and most of it is in polar ice or too deep underground to reach. The amount of fresh water that is accessible, in lakes, rivers and reservoirs is less than a quarter of one per cent of the total.
In the twentieth century demand for water increased six fold, more than double the rate of growth of the human population, while pollution and over-extraction in many regions of the world has reduced the ability of supplies to meet demand.
The worst affected areas are in semi arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where by 2025 most of the 2.7 billion people expected to suffer severe water scarcity will be living.
Unabated population growth in these regions and climate variability, says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), will exacerbate the stress of water scarcity.
The key for countries of the regions -- many among the world's least developed -- to cope with the crisis, will be to develop improved management of water while putting into place strategies to adapt to climate variability, the WMO says.
An over arching challenge for the UN in the twenty first century is to raise the productivity of water, to bring about a "blue revolution," said Mr. Annan.
Even where supplies are sufficient, or plentiful, they are increasingly at risk from pollution and rising demand, the Secretary General said.
"We have to become wiser about how we manage water," said Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the lead UN organization co-ordinating World Water Day 2002.
"We can't keep treating it as if it will never run out because there's a limited quantity of it on Earth. To manage it better we need to work together and set priorities that respect its limits -- because without it human development cannot progress," Mr. ElBaradei said.
Water drove the inception of life on Earth, and the development of human civilization, from the earliest agricultural communities to the greatest metropolitan centers. Failure to manage water has contributed to the collapse of civilizations, said Mr. ElBaradei.
Current "explosive" urban and industrial development requires not only that water supplies are adequate to meet human, industrial and power generation demands, but also that there is awareness such development increases the risk of flooding, says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Agriculture Uses Most Water
Agriculture consumes about 70 per cent of the world's available water but experts say that where there are competing demands for water use, and groundwater sources have been depleted, small farmers are the first to lose their supply.
As a consequence farmers are displaced from their land and the landless, who help them, are made jobless. Environmental damage to wetlands and estuaries from upstream depletion, as well as an increase of water-borne disease, also occurs.
There must be more emphasis towards increasing the efficiency of water management systems and increasing water productivity, getting more crops per drop, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Water stress leaves women the most vulnerable. Without a ready source of water they may have to walk for several hours every day to find it, or send their children to fetch it. Child nurturing and education suffer and the water available maybe unfit for human use.
The U.N. estimates that 1.2 billion people lack access to safe water and about 2.5 billion are without access to proper sanitation.
The absence of safe water translates into a tremendous burden of disease, linked to gastro-intestinal infection, making it a key water associated development issue, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
"Access to sanitation facilities is a basic human right that safeguards health and human dignity," said Sir Richard Jolly, Chair of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSCC).
"We know from experience that clean water alone leads only to minor health improvements. Sound hygiene behaviour must be recognized as a separate issue in its own right, with adequate sanitation and clean water as supporting components.
This year, water pollution, poor sanitation and water shortages will kill over 12 million people, said Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Millions more are in bad health and trapped in poverty, said Mr. Töpfer, much of their energy and time wasted in the quest for clean water.
In the United Nations Millenium Declaration world leaders made a commitment to halve the number of people without access to safe and affordable water.
"Achievement of the goal will require better management -- a mix of technological intervention and conservation," said Mr. ElBaradei.
"Countries are already mobilizing at a national level but there is a clear need to offer assistance to many of the world's poorest nations to support measures that will prevent human suffering," said Mr. ElBaradei.
In his World Water Day address the UN Secretary General reported that, increasingly, countries with expertise in the management of watersheds and flood-plains, or with experience in efficient irrigation, are sharing the knowledge with others.
The IAEA is among UN agencies offering a wide array of responses to the crisis, providing member states with skills to apply isotope hydrology, to better manage ground water. The technique permits reliable and rapid mapping of underground water sources so that they can be used safely without being exhausted. The agency also fosters the development of desalination to turn salt water into sweet water.
African Ministers Appeal for Help
The ministers of water from 22 African countries are calling for a regional and global alliance, backed by funding, to tackle water and sanitation problems.
They are urging action to cut the death rate, as a result of poor hygiene and disease contaminated water, to be at the centre of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg from Aug. 26 to Sept 4, 2002.
Uganda, a member of the group, has set a goal of providing safe water and adequate sanitation to 65 per cent of its population by 2006 and to all its population by 2015.
To a large extent, the lack of safe water and sanitation keeps in motion a cycle of poverty and ill-health in many developing countries.
"Without adequate clean water there can be no escape from poverty. Water is the basis for good health and food production," Mr. Töpfer said.
The development of effective water management offers great potential as a cost-effective alternative to medical intervention to prevent and control water borne diseases, says WHO.
"Water is probably the only natural resource to touch all aspects of human civilization -- from agricultural and industrial development to the cultural and religious values embedded in society," said Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO.
The need and demand for water, in fact, has been a driving force of social, economic and cultural development through human history, he said.
"It is no exaggeration to say that, if water is in crisis, development is in crisis too," he said.