High and Dry in the 21st Century?

Six billion people add up to a whole lot of thirst. Filling the water glasses of today's expanding population is becoming a world-wide challenge. Many nations are also having problems providing adequate water supplies for sanitation, agricultural operations and industry.

A recent World Water Council report stated that approximately 3 billion people presently live without access to either safe drinking water or proper sanitation. At a 1998 international conference on world water resources, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Federico Mayor similarly pointed out that "during the past 25 years the per capita water availability has dropped by about one-third." Even more troubling than this current water scarcity is the projection that by 2025 another 2.5 billion people will inhabit the planet and further strain already limited water resources.

In March 2000, the Second World Water Forum was held in The Hague, the Netherlands. Water ministers from more than 130 countries convened to discuss the looming international water crisis.

"Water resources, and the related ecosystems that provide and sustain them, are under threat from pollution, unsustainable use, land-use changes, climate change and many other forces. The link between these threats and poverty is clear, for it is the poor who are hit first and the hardest," the ministers declared in a summary statement. "This means ensuring that fresh water, coastal and related ecosystems are protected and improved, that sustainable development and political stability are promoted, that every person has access to enough safe water at an affordable cost to lead a healthy and productive life, and the vulnerable are protected from the risks of water-related hazards."

A variety of organizations are working together to deal with wide-spread water shortages. One example of an encouraging collaboration is a new initiative being lead by the Water Environment Federation (WEF). The wastewater association is working with other international water organizations and companies to launch during the summer of 2001 an international water Web site that will bring together water professionals from around the globe to exchange information on both existing process and innovative emerging technologies. The site is intended to enable both developing and technologically advanced nations to share expertise and experience. More information about this new site can be obtained by contacting WEF at (812) 945-2333 or through www.wef.org.

WEF's efforts will soon be complemented by the International Institute for Infrastructural, Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering (IHE Delft), which recently became the IHE-UNESCO Institute for Water Education. The organization intends to promote information sharing, education and training in social, institutional and technical aspects of sustainable community water supplies, sanitation and hygiene. For further details, check out www.ihe.nl.

Another organization focusing on water-related problems is the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The organization sponsored a symposium "Water Security for 21st Century - Innovative Approaches" in Stockholm during August 2000. Other organizers of the event included the Global Water Partnership, the United Nations Development Program and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. SIWI is especially active in two areas - integrated water resources management and integrated coastal zone management. To learn more about SIWI, go to www.siwi.org.

The United Nations is also working with the private sector to tackle international water problems. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has jointly published a report with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (www.wbcsd.ch). The report Industry, Fresh Water and Sustainable Development discusses how industry can play an important role in the way society manages its finite fresh water resources. However, the report emphasizes that agriculture and urban centers are by far the largest users of fresh water and generate substantial amounts of pollution. More information about the report can be found at www.wbcsd.ch.

Solving the world-wide water problems will involve the purchase of large amounts of environmental goods and services. According to the recently released McIlvaine Company's report Clear Solutions, there currently exists a $655 billion world market for water-related services., which constitutes about two percent of the world's gross domestic product. This broad market includes the treatment and distribution of public drinking water supplies; the collection, treatment and discharge of municipal wastewater; the treatment of industrial water and wastewater; and the treatment of process (ultra pure) water.

The report also emphasizes the fastest growth sector in the water industry will be the delivery of desalinated water on a contract basis. The cost of delination is now less than alternatives in many areas that have previously relied on ground or surface water. An example in the United States is Tampa, Fla., which recently signed a long-term contract for desalinated water even though groundwater could have been used as a drinking water source. Beginning on page 16, one of our cover stories profiles Israel's shift to desalination to meet its water needs.

The escalating global water crisis cannot be solved by scientists and engineers alone. Reversing this troubling trend will require presenting scientific knowledge in a manner that key decision-makers can understand and act upon. The challenges include ensuring governmental and social involvement, political stability that promotes the completion of water treatment and delivery infrastructure and citizens' willingness to participate.

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Angela Neville, JD, REM is editor-in-chief of Environmental Protection. She can be reached via e-mail at aneville@stevenspublishing.com.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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