Mar 5th 2003
A United Nations report says the world’s fresh water is being used up fast. But much can be done to ensure that nobody goes thirsty in future
WORLD leaders have been debating for years how to conserve the planet’s fresh-water supplies and ensure everyone has enough for drinking and sanitation and to grow crops. Indeed, they are about to gather to discuss the subject again, at the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, on March 16th-23rd. But the United Nations complains, in a report published this week, that most of the promises of action made at
such gatherings go unfulfilled and that politicians do not take the issue seriously enough. Unless more is done, the UN says, by 2050 up to 7 billion people out of a projected world population of 9.3 billion may be suffering in some way from water shortages.
Already about 40% of the world’s population has insufficient water for sanitation and hygiene, and 2.2m people die each year from diseases linked to inadequate sewerage or contaminated drinking water. Each day, about 2m tonnes of waste are dumped into the world’s rivers and lakes, the UN calculates. There is now about 12,000 cubic km of polluted water on the planet, equivalent to more than the contents of the world’s ten biggest river basins. If the rate of pollution keeps pace with population growth, this pool of contaminated water will grow to 18,000 cubic km by 2050, or nine years’ worth of worldwide irrigation needs, at current rates.
Though such worries are normally associated with poor countries, the report says that, of 122 countries ranked on the quality of their water and their ability and commitment to improve the situation, the world’s worst is prosperous Belgium, which gets lower marks than impoverished African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries (see table). Combining affluence with effluence, Belgium fails to treat its waste water properly and has let its heavy industries pollute waterways. This is especially reckless given that, as the report notes, Belgium has relatively few sources of usable groundwater. By contrast, Britain, the first industrialised nation, whose factories used to spew vast quantities of toxic waste into its rivers, has cleaned up its act sufficiently to become the fourth-best water provider, beaten only by the environmentally conscious Finns, Canadians and New Zealanders.
Though rich countries are not exempt from the problems of water contamination, those living in poor ones suffer most. Asia’s rivers are the world’s most polluted: their levels of human faecal bacteria are three times the world average and they have 20 times as much lead as the rivers in rich western countries. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year, leaders pledged to halve the proportion of people lacking safe drinking water by 2015, which means connecting up 274,000 people a day until then. This sounds tough but the UN report reckons, despite its overall gloominess, that current investment levels may be enough, if maintained, to meet the target in all parts of the world except sub-Saharan Africa.
Intensive farming has greatly increased the world’s food supply but it is sucking up growing quantities of water. Of 170 countries surveyed by the UN, 20 are already using more than 40% of their renewable water supply for irrigation. By 2030, the Middle East and North Africa may be using more like 60% of theirs. Developing countries could continue expanding their farm output without endangering their water supply by using more treated waste water on their crops. At present, only 10% of irrigated land in these countries uses recycled water (which, the UN notes, can actually improve soil fertility if correctly treated). Singapore has gone a step further in recycling: starting in January, treated waste water has been mixed into the city-state’s tap water. The government has given the resulting concoction the Orwellian-sounding name of newater.
Since so many of the world’s main rivers cross international boundaries, there would seem to be much scope for water wars if and when they begin to run dry. Recently, relations between America and Mexico have been soured by a dispute over water from the Rio Grande. And Syria and Iraq have complained about Turkey’s damming of the upper reaches of the Euphrates. However, the UN (which is understandably reluctant to talk up the idea of more wars) plays down the risks of water worries ending in violent conflict. It says most countries resolve such issues peacefully. The opposing sides in the Vietnam war and in two India-Pakistan wars continued to co-operate over water even as they fought each other. Even so, it is hardly reassuring that there have been 37 violent conflicts involving water between nations in the past 50 years, 18 of these involving Israel.
The prospect of growing water shortages has some in water-abundant countries thirsting to make a profit from selling it. Some Canadian firms want to export tankers of blue gold to America; environmentalists are aghast, and are pressing the government to ban this. Amerindian leaders in Bolivia are furious at their government’s plan to extract water from an aquifer under Potosi province and sell it to Chile’s neighbouring Atacama Desert region. In fact, the establishment of an international market in water might encourage the world to value it more. In countries with water shortages, from Iran to Spain, much is wasted because it is too cheap and there is thus little incentive to conserve it. Charging more to those who can pay would also provide money to install water supplies in poor communities and to clean up pollution.
While the UN grumbles at politicians’ inertia over water supplies, its alarming conclusions do sound uncannily like all those other doom-laden warnings of the world’s resources running out, going back as far as Thomas Malthus’s in the 18th century. There is great scope for using water more efficiently and cutting pollution, but there has been little incentive to achieve this while water was so abundantly available in most places. It still is: there are still enormous, untapped supplies in underground aquifers perhaps 500 times as much as in all the world’s rivers. The Chilean village of Caleta Chungungo has even started harvesting water from the clouds, by putting up huge nets on a nearby mountainside to catch the vapour. Human inventiveness in conserving and collecting water has barely been tapped.