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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.”

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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.

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