Menus Subscribe Search

The World Water Crisis: High Cost, Low Priority

• May 22, 2009 • 4:05 PM

Clean and steady water that circumstance denies to up to two-thirds of the world’s population remains a low priority even as trillions are spent on carbon and stimulus initiatives, a new United Nations report states.

Despite promises made by world leaders nearly a decade ago, a new United Nations report has concluded it is still “business as usual” for 5 billion people — about two-thirds of the world population — who do not have access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation or enough food to eat.

That’s the grim assessment of “Water in a Changing World”, the U.N.’s third triennial water development report since 2000. It was presented this spring at the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, as several hundred protesters demonstrated against large dam construction and the privatization of water supplies in the developing world.

The report called on governments and the private sector urgently to increase their investment in water resources, noting that the funds needed for water resources are miniscule compared to the funds already pledged and obtained to reduce carbon emissions and deal with the global financial crisis.

Although more than 90 percent of the world’s population is expected to have access to safe drinking water by 2015, progress in basic sanitation lags far behind, the report said. Most of the sewage in developing countries is discharged without treatment, and an estimated 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea, a disease that often can be prevented by washing one’s hands with soap. That’s about 10 children dying in the time it will take to read this article.

Nor are the problems confined to the developing world. In the United States, the report said, it will require an investment of more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years to bring aging water supply systems and sewer infrastructure up to current standards.

“This is a call for action now, before it is too late,” Engin Koncagul, a coordinator for the U.N.’s water assessment program, said at a recent water forum in Santa Barbara, Calif. Many countries spend more on the military than they do on water resources and public health, he said.

“Spending on water infrastructure must be a high priority for leaders in government,” Koncagul said. “We must invest in developing countries. After decades of inaction, we can always make a change, as long as there is good will.”

Environmentalist and human rights advocacy groups such as International Rivers, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, Calif., sent representatives to Istanbul to protest what they view as the bias among water bureaucrats in the government and private sector in favor of large dams and centralized irrigation systems — projects they say aren’t cost-effective and won’t bridge the water divide between rich and poor.

“You would get more bang for the buck addressing the leaks in existing water infrastructure,” said Peter Bosshard, a policy director for International Rivers who helped organize the Alternative Water Forum, an event attended by 1,000 people in Istanbul.

“And if you want to strengthen the ability of Africa’s poor farmers to deal with water scarcity, to do the most with water that’s available, you have to adopt decentralized approaches,” Bosshard said. “Centralized irrigation is not an option for the poor in many parts of the world.”

Two International Rivers staff members were arrested at the March 16 opening of the World Water Forum and deported the next day for displaying a banner that read, “No Risky Dams.”

The U.N. report noted that large dams and hydroelectric plants leave a “heavy footprint on the natural environment” and often displace large numbers of people, but, it said, many countries are increasingly turning to such projects to increase their water storage capacity as the climate becomes more irregular, and to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

According to the report, the annual capital investment needed for water and sewage services worldwide could be as much as $148 billion, with a funding gap as high as $115 billion.

But Bosshard called these figures “definitely inflated.”

“There is a big shortage of funds, but the funds that are approved are often not allocated to the most effective solutions,” he said. “The epicenter of the global crisis (is) the rural poor. Strengthening their ability to deal with water scarcity and providing low-cost, low-tech solutions to small farmers on rain-fed land — small tanks and human-powered water pumps — would be much more cost-effective than building large irrigation systems and dams.”

The number of people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day — the 1.4 billion often referred to as the “bottom billion” —roughly corresponds with the number of people who lack safe drinking water, according to the U.N. report. Worst off is sub-Saharan Africa, where the proportion of poor people is the same as it was 25 years ago. Countries in this part of the continent store only 4 percent of their water resources, compared to up to 90 percent in developed countries. Stored water is needed for irrigation and hydropower, and can provide a buffer against floods.

Water scarcity can set the scene for regional conflict, as this quote in the report from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon attested:

“Ten years ago — even five years ago — few people paid much attention to the arid regions of western Sudan. Not many noticed when fighting broke out between farmers and herders, after the rains failed and water became scarce. Today, everyone knows Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died. Several million have left their homes. … But almost forgotten is the event that touched it off — drought. … Too often, where we need water, we find guns.”

Population growth and a global shift in diet toward the consumption of more dairy products and meat will put more pressure on the world’s water supplies in coming years even than climate change. Meat production requires 8 to 10 times more water than cereal production.

At the same time, the report said, the world’s population is growing by 80 million per year, and by 2050 is expected to reach more than 9 billion people, up by 50 percent from more than 6 billion today. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, regions that now lack sufficient water supply and sewage treatment, will account for half the world’s population in 2100.
Yet despite these sobering forecasts, Koncagul said he was cautiously optimistic about the future of water.

“People around the world have started thinking about their sons and grandsons,” he said. “They have changed their mindsets. There is more cooperation and better dialogue between countries. Up- and downstream users are now more willing to cooperate. It’s not only about profit but about the health of our planet.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.