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Irrigation creates world water crisis

Robin McKie, science editor Sunday February 25, 2001 The Observer

More than a billion people lack access to clean water, despite 10 years of intense efforts by aid agencies to avert droughts and pollution. An investigation by the World Health Organisation has revealed that tens of thousands of children are dying every day of thirst or from diseases triggered by infected or poisoned water.

Alarmingly, the report - Water for Health: Taking Charge - shows that attempts to improve irrigation and extraction have worsened the problems and increased suffering.

In Bangladesh, deep wells were drilled to provide alternative sources to contaminated surface waters but these supplies have been found to be poisoned with arsenic. A tenth of those who drank such water are now doomed to die, say doctors.

In Egypt and Ghana, man-made lakes have been infected with worms that spread bilharzia to people working in nearby fields. The disease, known also as schistosomiasis, can cause seizures, paralysis and liver, lung and bladder damage.

In other countries, smaller dam projects have created bodies of water in which mosquitoes thrive. In Ethiopia, this has led to a sevenfold increase in malaria cases.

'There is, unfortunately, a mismatch between those supplying water and those trying to ensure the health of those living near such schemes,' said Dr Jamie Bartram, co-ordinator of the WHO's water, sanitation and health programme. 'Often there is an improvement in average living conditions when a new dam or irrigation scheme is opened, but that is confined to the people living down stream. Those living beside these projects often have their lives or health made much worse.'

The WHO report, to be published next month says global warming will exacerbate the situation. 'The greenhouse effect is already bringing more extreme weather episodes and that means more droughts and more outbreaks of serious flooding,' said Bartram.

With flooding, drinking supplies get contaminated with sewage and people can no longer consume unpolluted water. Epidemics of disease, such as cholera, then break out.

Water's critical importance is spelled out in the current issue of Scientific American by Peter Gleick, a leading expert on the subject. He says Earth can now sustain its six billion inhabitants only by exploiting artificial irrigation systems, which nourish 40 per cent of the planet's agriculture, and hydro-electric plants generating 20 per cent of its electricity.

However, these projects often jeopardise the lives of those they are meant to help.,6903,442711,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, February 25, 2001

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