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World may face water crisis

Seven billion people in 60 countries could have limited access to clean water by 2050.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | April 20, 2003


"You don't need much money, it's an issue of developing local knowledge."

—Ingbar Andersson


By the middle of the century, seven billion people in 60 countries could have limited access to clean water according to a report published by an organization affiliated with the United Nations educational agency known as UNESCO.

The report predicts a bleak future where water, particularly in developing countries, is not as plentiful or clean as it is today. And, according to several water and sanitation experts, the global situation today is already challenging.

"By the middle of the century, at worst seven billion people in 60 countries will be water-scarce, at best two billion in 48 countries," concludes Water for People, Water for Life, produced by World Water Assessment Programme.

But these same experts think that these trends can be effectively countered, and such an effort would not necessarily entail a lot of money -- just a lot of education.

That assessment of the global situation is borne out in the report, which calls for more careful management of the planet's water supply.

"This crisis is one of water governance, essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water...In truth it is attitude and behavior problems that lie at the heart of the crisis," according to the report. "For humanity, the poverty of a large percentage of the world's population is both a symptom and a cause of the water crisis. Giving the poor better access to better managed water can make a big contribution to poverty eradication."

The report also details how inadequate management of water distribution leads directly to sanitation problems, and consequently to disease, and that billions of people in the developing world are already experiencing these very basic problems.

"Presently, 1.1 billion people lack access to improved water supply and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation. In the vicious property/ill-health cycle, inadequate water supply and sanitation are both underlying cause and outcome: invariably, those who lack adequate and affordable water supplies are the poorest in society. If improved water supply and basic sanitation were extended to the present-day 'unserved', it is estimated that the burden of infectious disease would be reduced by some 17 percent annually; if universal piped, well-regulated water supply and full sanitation were achieved, this would reduce the burden by some 70 percent annually," according to the report.

That the earth only has only so much water, however, would not present a problem, if not for the human beings. But as the human population continually increases, and the amount of land required for agriculture also expands, the more water will be necessary to slake the thirst of the ever-burgeoning human race.

There is, however, only so much water to go around, said Manuel Dengo, chief of water resources for the UN department of economic and social affairs.

"The problem is catching up with the growth of the population. It's a constant race to catch up," Dengo said. "The more we grow, and the more we develop, the more we influence the water cycle. So it's a matter of using water wisely."

This wise use of water involves the careful management of water distribution. Barring a limits on population-growth or land-use, management is the only method available or more specifically what Dengo calls "integrated water resources management."

Dengo thinks that historically there has been a global lack of political will to codify the wise use and distribution of water. In the last few years, however, necessity has forced world leaders to take a more serious look at the issue, he said. Water conservation and related issues, such as sanitation, "have become a very high priority on the political agenda," according to Dengo.

Serious efforts, he said, can only be undertaken as the result of "multi-stake holder discussions" talks that include representatives of all levels of governments in a particular area, as well as relevant business leaders.

Not all developing countries have the expertise or the ability to pull together this kind of effort, and some of these countries also have plenty of other things to worry about, like famine, disease and mass starvation.

This is where experts like Dengo can help "to bring them up to speed."

Like Dengo, Ingbar Andersson, a UN water policy advisor, does this sort of work for a living.

Andersson believes that the future crisis outlined in the WAAP report is real, but that with proper planning and attention, the potentially nightmarish scenario painted in the report can be avoided.

KEEPING WATER SYSTEMS WORKING

"As long as it works, everyone's happy," Andersson said, "but when there's breakdown, then it's hard to rectify."

These systemic breakdowns then lead people to use unsafe means of getting water, and of disposing of human waste. And these primitive methods quickly pollute the local water supply.

"People today don't die from lack of water, they die because the water is polluted," he said. "That's why millions of people die every year, but that's a problem that's very easy to address."

Andersson does not think this problem can be solved by throwing a lot of money at undeveloped countries. In fact, he said, that can even make the situation worse, by allowing countries to build water systems that they may not be able to maintain in the future.

Instead, Andersson suggests "very basic improvements in health and hygiene education," as well as teaching local governments how to build the most suitable and efficient distribution systems for a particular environment.

People everywhere want to have decent living conditions, he said, "so if we can provide better advice and better financial resources, and it doesn't have to be much, they will have the opportunity to improve their lives considerably."

On the other hand, Andersson points out, developed Western countries are not immune from potential water supply problems in the near future.

The reason for concern for the West, he said, is mainly due to chemical contamination, from industrial pollution and agricultural pesticides (which have "an impact that we're not sure about"), as well as "all the medicine that we put through our bodies."

This last problem is something that Western countries are just beginning to worry about.

"Our water treatment plants are not really designed to deal with (pharmaceutical chemicals)," he said. "I think that's an issue of concern."

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS

For the vast majority of the world's population, one of the most important aspects of water managment is the conservation of drinkable water.

"One of the biggest issues right now is irrigation and water use for sanitation purposes," said Chris Landry, American Red Cross program manager for El Salvador.

According to Landry, the unnecessary use of drinkable water for irrigation and waste removal may lead to water shortages in the future.

This problem, however, can be easily corrected, he said. Managing the source of irrigation water is one solution. "It's not necessary to irrigate fields with quality drinking water," Landry said. Sometimes untreated river water can be just as safe and effective.

Another solution relies on cheap toilets. In poor, rural areas, flush toilets are not always necessary, he said, especially when clean drinking water is already a scarce commodity.

"It's time to rethink that concept of taking perfectly good water and literally flushing it down the toilet," Landry said.

The construction of cheap composting toilets is one alternative. These toilets basically turn human feces into fertilizer, and they don't require any water.

Andersson said such toilets can be built for less than $30 USD.

Another simple trick involves just water, vinegar and salt, according to Dengo.

A powerful disinfectant, sodium hypochlorite, can be created when a small electrical current is passed through a solution of these three basic substances.

"With that solution, you can take some of that, put it in your water tank, and with that same solution, you can also wash your lettuce," Dengo said.

Then there is another sanitation method that requires merely a scrap of cloth.

A study in the new Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that women in Bangladesh who filtered their drinking water through a sari cloth helped cut new cholera cases in half.

Rita Colwell, the lead author of the study and a professor of microbiology and molecular biology at the University of Maryland, found that when the cloth was folded at least four times, the filtered water dramatically cut the risk of contracting cholera.

The people who still got sick showed symptoms which were less severe, and many mothers involved in the study reported that their children suffered from diarrhea less often.

What is most critical, said Andersson, is making sure that these simple ideas are transmitted to the people who could use them to the most advantage. In short, education is essential for preserving the future of the world's water supply.

"Often you don't need much money," Andersson said. "It's an issue of developing local knowledge."


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