World Security Depends on Averting Water Wars

March 25, 2002

More than five million people die each year from water related diseases--10 times the number killed in wars. On Friday, World Water Day, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned, "Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict."

A looming crisis that overshadows nearly two thirds of the Earth's population is drawing closer because of continued human mismanagement of water, population growth and changing weather patterns, UN organizations said today.

Of the more than six billion people alive on Earth today, Annan said, "an estimated 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.5 billion people have no access to proper sanitation. By 2025, two thirds of the world's population is likely to live in countries with moderate or severe water shortages."

"The theme of this year's observance of World Day for Water--Water for Development--reflects the fundamental place of water in sustaining life and conserving the environment," Annan said.

Less than three percent of the water on Earth is fresh, and most of it is in polar ice or too deep underground to reach. The amount of fresh water that is accessible in lakes, rivers and reservoirs is less than a quarter of one percent of the total.

Annan sees the potential water crisis, but if all the world's peoples work together, he says hopefully, "a secure and sustainable water future can be ours."

"Later this year, heads of state and government, nongovernmental organizations, private sector representatives and many others will gather in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed next year the International Year of Freshwater. Everyone has a stake in seizing these opportunities to chart a decisive course of action for meeting the Millennium Development Goals on access to freshwater.

The UN agencies are making freshwater access a priority for action this year in advance of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is now launching a major project for the Volga/Caspian Basin. Representatives of 39 Russian Federation provinces and republics will be working with all five of UNESCO's program areas to create an interdisciplinary development plan that will balance the hydrological, ecological and socio-economic needs of the basin.

UNESCO director general Koichiro Matsuura said this "holistic approach" will be presented as a unique example at the World Summit for Sustainable Development. "Underpinning this approach is the conviction that only by integrating scientific and ethical principles with socially sound practices can we secure a sustainable water world for generations to come," he said.

UNESCO is hosting the Secretariat of the World Water Assessment Programme. Through a concerted effort involving 23 UN agencies, the programme will produce the World Water Development Report, whose first edition will be released at the 3rd World Water Forum at Kyoto, Japan, in March 2003. For the first time, national decision makers, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary citizens will have access to a regular assessment of the global and regional water situation.

The average person needs a minimum of 1.3 gallons (five liters) of water per day to survive in a moderate climate at an average activity level, according to UN figures. The minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation is 13 gallons (50 liters).

The average person in the United States uses between 65 to 78 gallons of water (250 to 300 liters) per day for drinking, cooking, bathing, and watering their yard. The average person in the Netherlands uses only 27 gallons (104 liters) per day for the same tasks.

The average person in the African nation of Gambia uses only 1.17 gallons (4.5 liters) of water per day.

In the 20th century demand for water increased six fold, more than double the rate of growth of the human population, while pollution and over-extraction in many regions of the world has reduced the ability of supplies to meet demand.

The worst affected areas are in semi arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where by 2025 most of the 2.7 billion people expected to suffer severe water scarcity will be living.

Unabated population growth in these regions and climate variability, says the World Meteorological Organization, will worsen the stress of water scarcity.

The absence of safe water translates into a tremendous burden of disease, linked to gastro-intestinal infection, making it a key water associated development issue, says the World Health Organization.

"Access to sanitation facilities is a basic human right that safeguards health and human dignity," said Sir Richard Jolly, chair of the Geneva based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. "We know from experience that clean water alone leads only to minor health improvements. Sound hygiene behaviour must be recognized as a separate issue in its own right, with adequate sanitation and clean water as supporting components," he said.

This year, water pollution, poor sanitation and water shortages will kill over 12 million people, said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. "Millions more are in bad health and trapped in poverty, much of their energy and time wasted in the quest for clean water."

In the United Nations Millenium Declaration world leaders made a commitment to halve the number of people without access to safe and affordable water.

"Achievement of the goal will require better management - a mix of technological intervention and conservation," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the lead UN organization coordinating World Water Day 2002.

The ministers of water from 22 African countries are calling for a regional and global alliance, backed by funding, to tackle water and sanitation problems.

They are urging action to cut the death rate, as a result of poor hygiene and disease contaminated water, to be at the centre of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Uganda, a member of the group, has set a goal of providing safe water and adequate sanitation to 65 percent of its population by 2006 and to all its population by 2015.

"Countries are already mobilizing at a national level," said ElBaradei, "but there is a clear need to offer assistance to many of the world's poorest nations to support measures that will prevent human suffering."

Source: Environment News Service

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