More than three decades after the first Earth Day, the world's governments are grappling with what promises to be one of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century - supplying humanity with enough clean drinking water.
Almost 1 in 5 people globally - about 1.3 billion - don't have access to safe drinking water. Every year an estimated 5 million people die from waterborne diseases.
The world's governments have pledged to cut the number of people without safe drinking water in half by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals, but it's a gargantuan task. To meet that target, 300,000 people need to be hooked up to water every day for the next 12 years.
The issue is not just a matter of building infrastructure to bring water and sanitation to people who are without it. Global water supplies per person are falling, while the demand for freshwater is growing at an unsustainable rate. During the next 20 years, the average supply of freshwater per person is forecast to drop by a third, according to a recent U.N. report.
Freshwater is a finite resource that is not evenly distributed. The world's population of 6.1 billion is forecast to increase by over 50 percent to 9.3 billion by 2050, with nearly all the growth taking place in the developing world where water scar city is greatest. An estimated two-thirds of the world's population will lack sufficient freshwater by 2025.
In response to the problem, the United Nations has declared 2003 the "International Year of Freshwater." More than 10,000 political leaders and water experts gathered in Kyoto, Japan, last month for the Third World Water Forum.
Concerned about the potential for future "water wars" between nations, U.N. officials at the forum announced a new organization, the Water Cooperation Facility, to mediate in disputes between countries that share a single river basin.
"If current trends continue, we could be faced with a very grave situation," former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who founded and heads the environmental group Green Cross International, told the forum. "A great majority of countries have not reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate on water resources."
More likely than wars between nations are internal instability and violence by downstream users denied water, said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and a leading expert on water resources. China and India have both experienced water riots by downstream users in recent years, she noted.
"I think we'll see more and more of this kind of thing as water stress increases," Postel said.
The global picture is ominous:
- About 2 million tons of waste are dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams. There are an estimated 2,878 cubic miles of polluted rivers worldwide, more than the total amount of water contained in the world's 10 largest river basins at any given moment. A cubic mile is a mile long by a mile high by a mile wide.
- Nearly 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation services. Preventable water-related diseases are one of the top causes of childhood death, claiming an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 children each day.
- More than 20 percent of all freshwater fish species are threatened or endangered because dams and water withdrawals have destroyed free-flowing river ecosystems.
- Seventy percent of the world's freshwater consumed each day is used by agriculture. With more than half of humanity now living in cities, farmers are increasingly competing with urban centers for water.
- Some of the world's key aquifers - including those in China, India, Pakistan and the United States - are being overpumped to irrigate crops, and water levels are declining. Experts warn that when pumping can no longer be sustained, irrigation will have to be scaled back, crop yields will decline and food prices will likely rise.
- Many industrial nations, including the United States, face exorbitant costs to replace aging water systems. Population pressures are pushing municipal utilities to sell their systems to private water companies or build expensive new projects to meet demand. Experiments in privatization of water systems have been controversial.
Meanwhile, there is "undeniable evidence" that the world's water cycle is speeding up, causing more frequent storms, floods and droughts and resulting in escalating economic losses, according to a report earlier this year by the World Water Council.
Changes in Earth's climate have resulted in more intense rainy seasons, longer dry seasons, stronger storms, shifts in rainfall and rising sea levels in many parts of the world, the report said. Climate change will account for an estimated 20 percent of the projected increase in water scarcity.
The water council said the number of major flood disasters has grown significantly over the past five decades: Six cases in the 1950s, seven in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, and 26 in the 1990s.
Written by: Joan Lowy, World Water Council
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