Dried Out

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Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Dried Out

Floods inundate some parts of the world, while others are parched. Managing our water is a 21st century challenge BY MARYANN BIRD

Water, not oil, is the most precious fluid in our lives, the substance from which all life on the earth has sprung and continues to depend. If we run short of oil and other fossil fuels, we can use alternative energy sources. If we have no clean, drinkable water, we are doomed. As the 6 billion passengers aboard Spaceship Earth enter a complex new century, few issues are as fundamental as water. We are falling far short of the most basic humanitarian goals: sufficient and affordable clean water, food and energy for everyone. "I cannot bear to watch the nations cry," wrote Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born Nobel laureate, whose poetry often reflects his African heritage. With regional disputes over water resources increasing, and people and ecosystems alike facing urgent, immense challenges, business as usual is not a viable option.

On a planet that is 71% water, less than 3% of it is fresh. Most of that is either in the form of ice and snow in Greenland and Antarctica or in deep groundwater aquifers. And less than 1% of that water — .01% of all the earth's water — is considered available for human needs; even then, much of it is far from large populations. At the dawn of the 21st century, more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Some 2.4 billion — 40% of the world's population — lack adequate sanitation, and 3.4 million die each year from water-related diseases.

The global governmental neglect behind those numbers is "the most critical failure of the 20th century" and the major challenge for the 21st, contends Peter Gleick, one of the world's leading experts on freshwater resources. "Governments, ngos and local communities must address this problem first — as their top priority," says Gleick, director of the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. "There are many tools for doing so, and the economic costs are not high compared to the costs of failing to meet these needs."

"We are facing a world water gap right now, this minute," the World Commission on Water has warned, "and the crisis will only get worse. The consequences of failing to bridge the gap will be higher food prices and expensive food imports for water-scarce countries that are predominantly poor." Hunger and thirst are also linked to political instability and low rates of economic growth.

Scientists, water professionals, environmental campaigners and others have warned for decades that a water crisis was building — alarm bells that rang on many a deaf governmental ear. The crisis is partly due to natural cycles of extreme weather and the expansion and contraction of arid regions. But human activity has been playing an ever-greater role in creating water scarcity and "water stress" — defined as the indication that there is not enough good-quality water to meet human and environmental needs. Like so much of the earth's bounty, water is unevenly distributed. While people in some parts of the world pile up sandbags to control seasonal floods or struggle to dry out after severe storms, others either shrivel and die — like their crops and their livestock before them — or move on as environmental refugees. In Canada — which has about the same amount of water as China but less than 2.5% of its population — the resource has been labeled "blue gold." In parched Botswana, dominated by the Kalahari Desert, water is so precious that the national currency is called pula — "rain" in the Setswana language. The planet is not actually running out of water, of course. But its people are having an increasingly difficult time managing, allocating and protecting the water that exists. In some areas the hydrological cycle — by which the fresh water of rain and snow eventually evaporates, condenses in clouds and falls again — may be taking longer to complete as humans use water faster than nature can renew it. As governments, international agencies and local officials grapple with the situation, research findings and conflicts over water rights illustrate the immensity of the task. For example:

• The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 792 million people in 98 developing nations still are not getting sufficient food to lead normal, healthy lives. Even in the industrialized world and in post-Soviet "countries in transition," 34 million people remain undernourished. In the Commonwealth of Independent States, the prevalence of undernourishment is greatest in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, while in Central Europe, Bulgaria is considered the worst case. In the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen, Morocco and Iraq are among the worst off. • Asia and the Pacific have more chronically hungry people than elsewhere, says the FAO, but the "depth of hunger" — a calculation based on what energy they get from their food and the minimum energy needed to maintain body weight — is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the world's poorest countries. There, some 186 million people — more than a third of the population — are considered undernourished. • In many sub-Saharan countries, according to a report by the World Water Council, the average per capita water-use rates are 10 to 20 liters a day, which it calls "undesirably low." By contrast, per capita residential use in Europe runs as high as about 200 liters. Beset by agricultural failure, fragile ecosystems, erratic weather, war and other factors, 18 sub-Saharan countries face the severest problems in feeding their people, says the FAO. • Disputes over water — including threats of "water wars" — bubble in areas where rainfall is sparse. Ignoring Israeli opposition, Lebanon began pumping water in late March from the Hasbani River, which flows into the Jordan. The village of Wazzani, which had been without water during two decades of Israeli occupation, views access to the river as a matter of simple rights as well as a symbol of sovereignty. Other current disputes involve Turkey, Syria and Iraq (the Euphrates); Israel and Syria (the Sea of Galilee); Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (the Jordan); Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and others (the Nile); Senegal and Mauritania (the Senegal); and Iran and Afghanistan (the Helmand). • In some places, water that is shared by nations has been poisoned — sometimes accidentally, as in last year's Romanian cyanide spill in the Tisza and Danube Rivers, and sometimes naturally, as in arsenic poisoning of groundwater in India and Bangladesh in recent years. More than 200 river basins are shared, and about half of them are in Europe and Africa, according to the Pacific Institute. Nineteen basins are shared by more than five political entities, led by the Danube with 17.

As a 21st century issue, freshwater scarcity was ranked second only to global warming in an International Council for Science survey of environmental experts in more than 50 countries. Next on the list were the related topics of desertification and deforestation. Desertification is a feature of every continent, and it seriously threatens the livelihoods of more than 1.2 billion people in more than 110 countries. Stemming from a variety of factors — including climactic variations, overgrazing of livestock, tilling land unsuitable for agriculture and chopping trees for firewood — desertification has made its greatest impact in Africa. The continent is two-thirds desert or fragile dryland, and nearly three-quarters of its extensive agricultural drylands are degraded to some degree.

"There is a great deal of natural rhythm in all of these shifts," says Vaclav Smil, professor of geography at Canada's University of Manitoba and an expert on environmental and energy matters. But he says better farming practices can help: "recycling crop residues, planting leguminous cover crops [plants with seeds in pods], planting trees everywhere." Smil also believes that even the poorest people should be charged for their water — "as much as they can bear" — to help ensure both efficient use and quality systems. "Otherwise they will waste as much as anybody else." While much of the focus is on Africa, developed but semiarid European countries along the northern Mediterranean also are suffering from desertification and deforestation. Much of the soil of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal has become saline and sterile as a result of fire, drought, floods, overgrazing, overtilling and other factors. Such degradation can be irreversible. As industry, tourism and farming place greater stress on coastal areas in particular — and groundwater levels decline — "water wars" are becoming internal. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards recently took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to protest government plans to divert the country's largest river, the Ebro, to supply water to the southeast. Marcelino Iglesias, president of the regional government in northeastern Aragσn, through which the Ebro flows, has denounced the plan as "aiming at an absolutely unsustainable model of development ... while consolidating a second-class Spain in the interior."

Indeed, dams and irrigation are two of the most controversial aspects of the global water debate and are being examined ever more critically. The final report of the World Commission on Dams concluded that while dams have delivered significant benefits, the price paid — in cost, environmental impact and displacement of people — has in many cases been unacceptable and often unnecessary. The report found "far greater scope" for alternatives to dams in meeting water, food and energy needs. "We excluded only one development option — inaction," says the commission chairman, Kader Asmal, a former South African Minister of Water Affairs.

"We must rethink water management," says Gleick. "We no longer live in an era, or a world, in which rivers can be endlessly dammed, aquifers relentlessly pumped, ecosystems degraded and impoverished ... We have to focus on how we use water. That's where new water will be 'found.' "

As the world begins to address the situation more seriously, a range of proposals, old and new, are coming to the fore. They include: reducing waste in irrigation (providing more drip to the drop); desalinating (where energy sources and funds permit, as in Saudi Arabia); recycling; making appropriate local choices of crops and grain-fed animals (growing corn rather than wheat in areas where water is not plentiful, raising chickens rather than pigs); employing low-cost chlorination and solar disinfectant techniques; increasing water "harvesting" — from sources like rain and fog — for agricultural use, particularly at village level; and transportation of potable water in giant polyurethane bags to dry areas (as has been done in Cyprus and the Greek islands for years).

Access to adequate, unpolluted water is increasingly being viewed in development circles as a basic human right, something that governments must ensure. As Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the dam commission: "In an age of globalization, greater efforts can and must be made to reconcile the need for economic growth with the need to protect the dignity of individuals, the cultural heritage of communities and the health of the environment we all share." For billions of people, that — like water itself — is a matter of life and death.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 01, 2001

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