Sink or Swim

Nations across the globe are in a race against time. With human populations exploding worldwide, the planet's supply of clean water is severely at risk. Water's quality, quantity and its guaranteed availability to all people regardless of their income or social status is one of the most pressing issues facing the world community today.

Despite the earth being a water-rich planet, 99.7 percent of that water is not available for human use, and the water that is available is not distributed uniformly in populated areas. Unfortunately, pollution, overconsumption and poor water management are decreasing the quality and quantity of available water. Today many governments are frantically working to ensure the widespread availability of freshwater water supplies and sanitation to their citizens.

One example of the heightened concern about this issue is that the United Nations Environment Programme chose the slogan "Water -- Two Billion Are Dying For It" for this year's World Environment Day celebration that took place on June 5, 2003.

"Current statistics are disturbing. One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water. Over twice that number -- 2.4 billion people -- lack access to adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases are responsible for 80 percent of all illnesses and deaths in the developing world," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the conference attendees.

Another concern is that the growing shortage of clean water threatens to make water, even more than oil, the cause of war in the decades to come. Diane Raines Ward has written the book Water Wars (2002 - The Berkeley Publishing Group), which presents a panoramic view of the next potential big crisis looming on the horizon. She outlines the worldwide struggle to manage water resources in the face of runaway population growth.

Due to worries about rampant global water shortages and their negative ramifications in international hydropolitics, several international organizations have formed that are devoted to dealing with this important issue. The Global Water Partnership (GWP) is a working alliance of governmental agencies, public institutions, private companies, professional organizations, multilateral development agencies and others dedicated to supporting countries in the sustainable management of their water resources. GWP's objective is to support actions at the local, national, regional or riverbasin level that follow the principles of sustainable water resources management.

Another group dealing with this important issue is the World Water Council (WWC), which is the international water policy think tank dedicated to strengthening the world water movement for improved management of the world's water resources. To promote its objectives, WWC has created and coordinates the triennial World Water Forum, which is a major water event organized every three years in close collaboration with the authorities in the hosting country.

Also working to guarantee adequate supplies of clean water on a global basis, the Stockholm International Water Institute links water experts with decision makers so that progressive policies and scientifically sound, water-cycle-based solutions can be promoted. Every year SIWI presents the Stockholm Water Prize to recognize excellence in water science or other water-related endeavors.

Additionally, water resources management is a top priority with the World Bank. The organization, which is funded by several member countries that include the United States, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, uses its financial resources to help developing countries improve living standards. Its policy is that investments in a country's water resources need to find a balance between promoting development and maintaining a functioning environment. This helps to ensure that the investments are sustainable in the long term. One sixth of the World Bank's lending -- some $3 billion a year -- is devoted to water-related projects. According to World Bank's estimates, by 2025 as many as four billion people, or one half of the world's population, could live under conditions of severe water stress, especially in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Our focus must be on finding practical, appropriate solutions to guarantee the reliable and equitable supply of water now and in the future. One successful approach includes rainwater harvesting, which experts estimate could help up to two billion people in Asia alone. Another solution involves end-of-pipe water purification and public health education about basic hygiene practices. As well, there are a number of arid countries -- such as Jordan and Israel -- that have intentionally formulated policies to reduce the export of water-intensive products, notably crops. More and more countries are beginning to look at the relationship between their trade and the impacts on their water resources.

Some may say it's like swimming against the tide to try and provide clean water to all people in need. Let's hope, however, that we can achieve this crucial goal in the future through innovative solutions and cooperation among diverse groups.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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