Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?

By 2025, 1.8 billion people could be living in water-scarce areas desperate enough for mass migrations, and another 3 billion could live in water-stressed areas. Today about 750 million people live below the water-stress threshold of 1,700 cubic meters per person per year and more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Water tables are falling on every continent; 40% of humanity depends on international watersheds; agricultural land is becoming brackish; groundwater aquifers are being polluted; and urbanization is increasing water demands faster than many systems can supply. Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers have doubled in the last 40 years. Agriculture accounts for 70% of human usage of fresh water, which needs even more to feed growing populations. Nature also needs sufficient water to be viable for all life support. Hence, more fresh water is needed—not just distribution agreements. Breakthroughs in desalination, like pressurization of seawater to produce vapor jets, filtration via carbon nanotubes, and reverse osmosis, are needed along with less costly pollution treatment. Seawater agriculture on desert coastlines would reduce freshwater agriculture demand.

We need an integrated global water strategy, plan, and management system to focus knowledge, finances, and political will to address this challenge. It should apply the lessons learned from producing more food with less water via drip irrigation and precision agriculture, rain water collection and irrigation, watershed management, selective introduction of water pricing, and replication of successful community-scale projects around the world. The plan should also help convert degraded or abandoned farmlands to forest or grasslands; invest in household sanitation, reforestation, water storage, and treatment of industrial effluents in multipurpose water schemes; and construct eco-friendly dams, pipelines, and aqueducts to move water from areas of abundance to scarcity. Access to clean water and basic sanitation should become human rights. Water can also be conserved by using animal stem cells to produce meat tissue (without the need to create the animal) and by increasing vegetarianism around the world.

About 80% of diseases in the developing world are water-related. Many are due to poor management of human excreta. About 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation. Many major rivers now run dry during part of the year before they reach the ocean. UNICEF and WHO estimate that developing nations need at least $11.3 billion a year to meet low-cost basic levels of service for both drinking water and sanitation by 2015. However, the water sector receives only 5% of development assistance today. If the world can meet the MDG goal for water, total economic benefits will be about $38 billion per year, far greater than the costs.

Unless major political and technological changes occur, future conflicts over trade-offs among agricultural, urban, and ecological uses of water are inevitable. Previously, water-sharing agreements have occurred even among people in conflict and have led to cooperation in other areas.

Challenge 2 will be addressed seriously when the number of people without clean water and those suffering from water-borne diseases diminishes by half and when the percentage of water used in agriculture drops for five years in a row.

Regional Considerations

Africa: Sub-Saharan Africa would have to triple its freshwater access to meet its MDG target on water by 2015, but few African governments spend more than 0.5% of GDP on water and sanitation. The IPCC warns that a 1–2°C increase in average temperature may leave 250–600 million Africans in water-stressed conditions. Africa has about one-third of the world’s major international water basins but uses less than 6% of its renewable water resources. Since the majority of Africa depends on rain-fed agriculture, upgrading rain-fed systems and improving agricultural productivity will immediately improve the lives of millions of Africans.

Asia and Oceania: The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, and Indus are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world, and some of them could eventually dry up. In the best-case scenario, the water situation in China is expected to get worse for the next eight years. China has only 8% of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. More than 12 million Chinese are short of drinking water, and 75% of the drinking water is polluted. China is expected to desalinate 800,000 to 1 million cubic meters of seawater a day by 2010, a significant increase from 120,000 cubic meters a day in 2005. It also plans to transfer water from Tibetan highlands to the more-developed northeast. Forced migration due to water shortages has begun in China, and India should be next. India’s urban water demand is expected to double and industrial demand to triple by 2025. Diarrhea causes some 450,000 deaths annually in India.

Europe: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Belgium, Spain, Malta, FYR Macedonia, Italy, the UK, and Germany can be considered water-stressed; 14% of the EU population has been affected by water scarcity. Over 80% of the original floodplain area along the Danube and its main tributaries has been lost as a result of dams, pollution, and climate change. The Belgian government recognizes water as a human right, and its development aid will focus on water. Water utilities in Germany pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies. Russia could supply fresh water to China and Middle Asia.

Latin America: Although the region has 28% of the world’s water resources, almost 80 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 120 million lack sewage treatment. Water crises will occur in megacities within a generation unless new water supplies are generated, a culture of water stewardship is achieved, lessons from both successful and unsuccessful approaches to privatization are applied, and legislation is updated for more reliable, transparent, and consistent integrated water resources management policies among institutions and countries. Water and sanitation problems cost the region an estimated $29 billion a year. Policymakers should pay more attention to privatization’s best practices and to lessons from past failures.

North America: Each kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. requires about 25 gallons of water for cooling, making power plants the second largest water consumer in the country, after agriculture. Over the past five years, municipal water rates have increased by an average of 27% in the U.S. and 58% in Canada. Water consumption per capita has been lowered over 20 years, yet 16 million Americans face water rationing. Water could become a class problem; poor people will be the first victims in free market distribution. The EPA found that half of all streams in the U.S. are polluted. Government agricultural water subsidies should be changed to encourage conservation. Innovations are increasing from atmospheric water generation to nanofiltration and packets (sachets) for water purification.

article provided millennium-project.org


Anonymous said...

Too long. Didn't read it.

Anonymous said...

Please summarise the article.
(just a tad)

Anonymous said...


We're F U C K E D.