Water for a warming world
Freshwater: lifeblood of the planet
Freshwater is the liquid of life. Without it the planet would be a barren wasteland. The supply of water is finite, but demand is rising rapidly as population grows and as water use per capita increases.
In an effort to spur action to meet the impending crisis, the UN General Assembly has proclaimed the period from 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life”.
This began on World Water Day, 22 March 2005. It is badly needed.
Despite considerable efforts in the last two decades, the latest assessment by WHO/UNICEF finds that 2.6 billion people are still without an acceptable means of sanitation, while 1.2 billion do not have access to clean piped water.
In theory, some 34,000 cubic kilometres of freshwater are available globally for human use every year. If evenly distributed this would provide each person with roughly 8,000 cubic metres of water per year (based on the population in 2000).
This amount would be enough to meet human needs, if freshwater were evenly distributed. But available freshwater supplies are not distributed evenly around the globe, throughout the seasons, or from year to year. For instance, the Congo River and its tributaries account for about 30% of the entire African continent’s annual runoff, but the watershed contains only 10% of Africa’s population. Two-thirds of the world’s population – around 4 billion people – live in areas receiving only one-quarter of the world’s annual rainfall.
In many countries the freshwater supply comes in the form of seasonal rains. Such rains run off too quickly for efficient use, as during the monsoons in Asia. India, for example, gets 90% of its annual rainfall during the summer monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. For the other eight months the country gets barely a drop.
Pollution of rivers and lakes reduces accessible freshwater supplies. Each year roughly 450 cubic kilometres of wastewater are discharged into rivers, streams and lakes. To dilute and transport this dirty water before it can be used again, another 6,000 cubic kilometres of clean water are needed
How much do we need?
The amount of water that people use depends not only on basic needs and how much water is available but also on levels of urbanisation and economic development.
1,000 cubic metres per person per year is seen as the real minimum. This is not only the water you use at home, but mainly water used in the production of food, paper, steel, etc.
Population growth and rising demand per capita are creating water shortages in many countries.
Each year nearly 80 million more people live on our planet. This implies an increased demand for freshwater of about 64 billion cubic metres a year – an amount equivalent to the entire annual flow rate of the Rhine River.
A country is said to experience water stress when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person. When supplies drop below 1,000 cubic metres per person per year, the country faces water scarcity for all or part of the year.
Population Action International (PAI) calculated water stress and scarcity in 2000.
The results are startling:
– In 1995, 31 countries, home to nearly half a billion people, regularly faced either water stress or water scarcity.
– In 2025, 48 countries containing about 3 billion people will face water shortages.
– By 2050 the figures will be 54 countries containing 4 billion people, or 40% of the expected world population of 9.4 billion in that year.
Other estimates show how bad the situation has gotten since 2000.
UNEP, in its Global International Waters Assessment in 2006, claims that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will already be living in conditions of acute water scarcity, while two thirds of humanity (over 5 billion) will be living in countries experiencing water stress.
Today (2008) 2.3 billion people, or 41% of the world’s population, live in water stressed areas. Of this total, 1.7 billion live in water scarce areas, with less than 1,000 cubic metres per person per year.
Spend more or face water catastrophe
A lot more work has to be done on water infrastructure than today, if hundreds of millions of people are not to suffer the consequences.
Countries across the world will have to dramatically increase investment in dams, pipes and other water infrastructure to avoid widespread flooding, drought and disease even before climate change accelerates these problems.
Global investment in water supplies needs to be at least doubled. Indeed, one leading authority says it needs to increase a thousand times, just “to be able to cope with the current climate”.
The warnings follow a summer (2008) of dramatic events, from hurricane flooding in the Caribbean and the east coast of America to desperate measures in drought-stricken Mediterranean countries, including importing water by ship (Spain).
Disease and death
”You can’t justify the deaths of so many children or people who are intellectually or physically incapacitated because of simple lack of access to safe water or sanitation,” Unver of UN’s World Water Assessment Report said.
Dr Glen Daigger of the International Water Association, said there was growing evidence that spending on clean water and sanitation was the single greatest contribution to reducing disease and death.
The UN has said that dams for hydropower and irrigation are leading drivers of sustainable economic growth in developing countries. “Water and sanitation is clearly a better investment than medical intervention, but it’s not sexy.”
Africa also faces serious water problems. Currently, some 206 million Africans live in water stressed or water scarce countries. By 2025 the number will rise to about 700 million, as population continues to grow rapidly.
To bring the continent up to South Africa’s level of nearly 750 cubic metres would need all the estimated 5%-7% rise in national income every year for up to 80 years.
Failure would mean more floods and droughts because our systems are not able to take the magnitude and frequency of water we’re witnessing.
See the example of Kenya, where two extreme years of wet and dry in the 1990s destroyed 40% of the country’s wealth.
Among the proposals to reduce costs, water users would have to accept different grades of water, including a lower grade in gardens and toilets, said Professor Alexander Zehnder, of the Alberta Water Research Institute, Canada. “Why are we spending a lot of money to clean the water and then we piss in it?”
Irrigation canal in Mali (Africa)
Europe: Brown Danube
Despite its big role in European history, the great river the Danube has been neglected. A report says that, despite improving, nearly half its 1,771-mile length fails to meet European Union standards.
Many cities in former Soviet countries that line its banks do not treat waste water and flush the sewage of millions of residents straight into Europe’s second-longest river and down to the Black Sea.
The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, which has published their report, says more than 200 schemes costing €4.5bn (£3.6bn) are needed just to treat waste water. Drinking water supply projects costing about half that much again are also required.
But the affected countries are all in eastern Europe and do not have the money, the report said. “The hope is some of those investments will come from the European Union; some will have to come direct from the countries.”
The 20 countries of the Near East and North Africa face the worst prospects. In fact, the Near East “ran out of water” in 1972 in the sense that, since then, the region has withdrawn more water from its rivers and aquifers every year than is being replenished. Currently, for example, Jordan and Yemen withdraw 30% more water from groundwater supplies every year than is replenished, and Israel’s annual water use exceeds the renewable supply by 15%. Inevitably, this means that water tables are falling and aquifers are slowly being sucked dry.
It is a measure of the crisis, that in the early months of 2004 Israel signed a deal with Turkey to ship 50 million cubic metres of water a year, for 20 years, from the river Manavgat in Anatolia, in return for arms.
Up to one-third of the four billion cases of diarrhoea in the world every year – causing around 2.2 million deaths, mostly among children under five – could be avoided if they had access to safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene, according to UNEP’s GEO 4 Report (2007).
The world’s 6.7 billion people are already appropriating just over half of all the accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers. By 2025 humankind’s share will be at least 70% – a conservative estimate that reflects the impact of population growth alone. If per capita consumption of water resources continues to rise at its current rate, humankind could be using over 90% of all available freshwater by 2025.
Finding solutions requires responses at local, national, and international levels. Nothing short of a Blue Revolution in water management can prevent the coming crisis.
Local initiatives to manage water resources better can help urban dwellers gain access to safe, piped water supplies, improved sanitation and public health.
International responses also are important because more than 200 major river systems cross international borders. As long as governments view water problems as national issues, rather than as transboundary issues, conflicts are likely to continue.
International co-operation over sources of freshwater is possible and practicable. In November 1999, for example, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan agreed upon a strategy for “the sustainable development of the Nile water through the equitable exploitation of the river for the common benefit of all the river basin states”. If fully implemented, the agreement – which covers all uses of the river, for irrigation, hydropower, drainage, drought and flood control, and pollution prevention – would be a significant breakthrough in a water-short region.
Ultimately, national governments in water-short regions will have to come to terms with acute freshwater shortages and accommodate human needs without over-using and polluting available freshwater resources. This will by necessity require a degree of international co-operation not yet seen in the area of resource management.