Rising population faces shrinking water supply

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March 20, 2000

Rising population faces shrinking water supply By Ines Capdevila THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Glaciers are melting, floods account for half of the deaths by natural catastrophes and water is all over. But in 25 years, if water management and use don't change, the people on this planet won't have enough of it to drink, wash, flush toilets, irrigate cropland, generate electricity or supply industries, says a new report. By 2025, the world population is projected to reach 8 billion. More irrigation will be needed to grow food, more water will be required for other needs, and large-scale investments will have to be found to solve problems of quantity and quality. "The arithmetic of water still does not add up," the report of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century concluded last week. "In the next two decades, it is estimated that water use by humans will increase by about 40 percent and that 17 percent more water will be needed to grow food for a growing population. In addition, the water demand for industry and energy will increase rapidly." The world commission was established by the World Water Council and co-sponsored by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other international organizations.

Quantity not sole issue It submitted its report to government representatives now meeting at The Hague for a world conference on the water crisis. More than 3,000 policy-makers, activists and businessmen are attending the six-day conference that will end Wednesday. Ironically, although the oceans are expanding and vast storms have affected every continent in recent years, only 1 percent of the earth's water is available to human use. The rest is either salty, stored in remote places or, as in the case of floods, cannot be captured. Quantity is not the only problem. The report says the water crisis is aggravated by environmental degradation that lowers the quality of water, especially in poor countries where the population is expected to grow most in the coming decades. In recent years, environment-conscious, developed countries have improved the quality of both drinking and surface water. Although the overexploitation of aquifers is a leading cause for water shortage in developed countries, large-scale investments have been flowing to clean up renewable water resources. In the United States, the amount of water used per capita decreased over the past decade. In Europe, salmon are back in the waters of the Rhine, and the Thames, polluted for centuries, is again habitable by fish.

Rich can buy solutions "The water crisis is bound to deepen the breach between developed and developing countries," said Bill Cosgrove, a member of the World Commission and World Water Vision, a think tank on the issue. "Rich countries can buy their way out of the problem. They are already investing billions of dollars in cleaning up pollution, whereas poor countries are faced with pollution and water shortage, and they have no money to invest." A quarter of the world's people, living mainly in developing countries, lack access to drinking water, and around 3 billion people lack sewage-treatment facilities, says the Vision 21 report that provided background information for the World Commission report. "The world is now beginning to feel the pangs of a more chronic and systemic water crisis," said the World Commission report. More than 3 million children die annually of water-related diseases such as diarrhea and fecal-oral infections, the world's greatest source of infant mortality. "In terms of percentage, the situation has grown better, but in absolute numbers, it is much worse," said Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the World Commission on Water and World Bank vice president for special projects.

Old and new problems For Mr. Serageldin, the "old problem" of billions of people without access to fresh water and sanitation and a whole list of "new problems" add to the crisis. In the list, pollution rates as a major concern for Europe and China, while the lack of irrigation affects the environment and food production in India. Urbanization and agricultural practices led to the reduction of the Florida Everglades, and an overall drought affects the U.S. Southwest. Affected by recent floods, sub-Saharan Africa will face more desertification, caused by recurring droughts and land degradation from overworking the barely productive land. According to Mr. Cosgrove, pollution, droughts and an uneven distribution of fresh-water sources will strongly affect Africa even if steps are taken. "There will be a need of a larger transfer of resources from developed countries," he said. While developed countries are ahead in technology and infrastructure investments, they are still exposed to the global water crisis and should also apply new management techniques to overcome the future shortage, the World Commission report said. The report is intended as a starting point for a worldwide campaign to alert governments, businessmen and users about water-use behavior.

'Attitudes must change' "Our attitude on managing water must change," said Mr. Serageldin. "Decision-making must be undertaken at the basin level, even if it crosses political and administrative boundaries." At the heart of the "drastic change" of management is the price users should pay for water. The World Commission deems water too cheap, and recommended in the report that "full pricing" be applied to services all around the world. By addressing water as a scarce commodity, the commission also expects that full pricing will open the sector to an inflow of funds to revamp technology and expand sewerage and access. More than $80 billion is invested annually in developing water resources, but the report estimates that the total should be increased to at least $180 billion to have worldwide sustainable use and access by 2025. "If users are paying, they will demand service," the report said. "If they are not, supply and management agencies will end up being unaccountable, inefficient and often corrupted. Global experiences shows that money is the medium of accountability." Private companies handle only 5 percent of all urban water consumers in the world. The rest are served by local governments, which have to deal with the limited cost-recovery of water provision.

Private investment wooed Although private investments in developing countries have risen from virtually nothing to $25 billion over the last eight years, the expanding industrialization will increase funding needs to catch up with water demands. The World Commission's recommendations aim to lure private companies into the water-provision business to fund the investments. "There is enormous possibility for expansion," said Mr. Serageldin. "You will not get conservation, stoppage of waste, adoption of appropriate techniques and private-sector investments unless you can get the full cost back. That is why we are promoting full pricing." While full-price water would directly affect poor people, Mr. Serageldin suggested that governments find "creative" ways to directly subsidize them, for instance with "water stamps." For Mr. Cosgrove, full pricing could be effective but it "would not solve all the problems." "People need to change their behavior with water. Paying money for something changes your behavior," he said. "But there is no general awareness about the crisis. Included in that is valuing water," Mr. Cosgrove said. "As long as we think that rain falls and water is then available, we won't think much about the crisis."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 20, 2000

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