Heading Into a Thirsty World


The world is rushing towards a freshwater crisis as usage increases and existing sources are reduced or contaminated. A holistic approach is urgently required to tackle the problem.

The statistics revealed at the 1977 United Nations Water Resources Conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, led the UN to declare the 1980s as the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade. Almost 20 years later, the world is closer than ever to a water crisis.

The water situation is provoking tense diplomatic talks. In the Middle East, agreement on access to water is an important part of the peace accords between Israel and its neighbours. The sharing of river water is a constant source of friction between India and Bangladesh.

For millions of families in the developing world, long-distance treks in search of water continue. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest households sometimes spend 20 per cent of their income on water. In Jakarta, Indonesia, 32 per cent of its 7.9 million inhabitants buy water from street vendors at about US$1.50 to US$5.20 per cubic metre, depending on the distance from the public tap. Similar situations exist in Karachi, Pakistan; Nouakchott, Mauritania; Dacca, Bangladesh; Tegusigalpa, Honduras; and Onitsha, Nigeria.

In Mexico City, water is now being pumped from the Cutzamala river, to a height of 1,000 meters as the groundwater table slips further down. In Amman, Jordan, the falling groundwater table has forced a shift to the more expensive use of the African population, 300 million people, will be living in water-scarce countries by the year 2000. In the Middle East, nine out of 14 countries already face water scarcity.

The critical question is how to make water use sustainable. Global demand for water doubles every 21 years. About eight per cent of the world’s freshwater supplies are used for human and sanitation needs. Agriculture accounts for 60 to 70 per cent, industry 20 per cent.

For all its apparent abundance, however, the supply of freshwater is limited. About 99 per cent of earth’s water is either saline or frozen. Of the remaining one per cent, most is groundwater and soil moisture. Thus the net availability of freshwater for all human uses is one-hundreth of that one per cent.

“It is no longer a question of just paying more money to make water available,” observes Bilsham Gujja, Manager of WWF International’s Freshwater Programme. “There is no simple techno-economic fix either. To ensure the availability of freshwater on a sustainable basis, the whole question of the water cycle, the quality and quantity of water, has to be looked at from an ecosystems and cross-sectoral approach.”

Among WWF’s conservation priorities, water occupies a prominent place. The principal challenge, however, is to prevent the rapid degradation of freshwater sources in the name of development. Hundreds of wetlands are being destroyed, lakes are drying up or being contaminated, and rivers are filled with effluent and waste. River transported pollutants account for more than 60 per cent of marine pollution.

One-fourth of China’s lakes are polluted and thousands of Swedish lakes have been destroyed by acid rain. In Poland, three-quarters of river water is too contaminated even for industrial use. In India, more than 4 million hectares of once-productive land have been abandoned because of water logging and salinisation.

Perhaps the most startling example is the Aral Sea in Central Asia: its water volume has decreased by two-thirds in recent years, and its water become increasingly saline, threatening the health of nearly 50 million people in the Aral Sea Basin. The main reason has been the excessive extraction of water for irrigation from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers which feed it.

Short-sightedness and fragmented approaches are as much of a problem as wastage in the home, agricultural fields, or factories. Fundamental change is needed in the way water resources are managed, taking into account social equity and ecological sustainability.

Meanwhile, the search for local solutions is easing the problem. For example, WWF’s freshwater study in India, in collaboration with UNICEF, aims to intergrate environmental concerns and basic needs of local communities. Individual case studies will be carried out in seven different types of India’s eco-regions. But much more is required to satisfy the world’s thirst for increasingly scarce freshwater.

Countries predicted to have scarce water resources in 2000

COUNTRY POPULATION IN 2000 (millions) INTERNAL RENEWABLE RESOURCES …. m3 per capita WATER RESOURCES including river flows from other countries m3 per capita
Egypt 62.40 29.00 934.00
Saudi Arabia 21.30 103.00 103.00
Lybia 6.50 108.00 108.00
UAE 2.00 152.00 152.00
Jordan 4.60 153.00 240.00
Mauritania 2.60 154.00 2843.00
Yemen 16.20 155.00 155.00
Israel 6.40 260.00 335.00
Tunisia 9.80 384.00 445.00
Syria 17.70 430.00 2008.00
Kenya 34.00 436.00 436.00
Burundi 7.40 487.00 487.00
Algeria 33.10 570.00 576.00
Hungary 10.10 591.00 11326.00
Rwanda 10.40 604.00 604.00
Botswana 1.60 622.00 11187.00
Malawi 11.80 760.00 760.00
Oman 2.30 880.00 880.00
Sudan 33.10 905.00 3923.00
Morocco 31.80 943.00 943.00
Somalia 10.60 1086.00 1086.00