Rising Population Faces Shrinking Water Supply

Article excerpt

Glaciers are melting, floods account for half of the deaths by natural catastrophes and water is all over. But in 25 years, if water management and use don't change, the people on this planet won't have enough of it to drink, wash, flush toilets, irrigate cropland, generate electricity or supply industries, says a new report.

By 2025, the world population is projected to reach 8 billion. More irrigation will be needed to grow food, more water will be required for other needs, and large-scale investments will have to be found to solve problems of quantity and quality.

"The arithmetic of water still does not add up," the report of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century concluded last week.

"In the next two decades, it is estimated that water use by humans will increase by about 40 percent and that 17 percent more water will be needed to grow food for a growing population. In addition, the water demand for industry and energy will increase rapidly."

The world commission was established by the World Water Council and co-sponsored by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other international organizations.

QUANTITY NOT SOLE ISSUE

It submitted its report to government representatives now meeting at The Hague for a world conference on the water crisis. More than 3,000 policy-makers, activists and businessmen are attending the six-day conference that will end Wednesday.

Ironically, although the oceans are expanding and vast storms have affected every continent in recent years, only 1 percent of the earth's water is available to human use. The rest is either salty, stored in remote places or, as in the case of floods, cannot be captured. Quantity is not the only problem.

The report says the water crisis is aggravated by environmental degradation that lowers the quality of water, especially in poor countries where the population is expected to grow most in the coming decades.

In recent years, environment-conscious, developed countries have improved the quality of both drinking and surface water.

Although the overexploitation of aquifers is a leading cause for water shortage in developed countries, large-scale investments have been flowing to clean up renewable water resources.

In the United States, the amount of water used per capita decreased over the past decade. In Europe, salmon are back in the waters of the Rhine, and the Thames, polluted for centuries, is again habitable by fish.

RICH CAN BUY SOLUTIONS

"The water crisis is bound to deepen the breach between developed and developing countries," said Bill Cosgrove, a member of the World Commission and World Water Vision, a think tank on the issue.

"Rich countries can buy their way out of the problem. They are already investing billions of dollars in cleaning up pollution, whereas poor countries are faced with pollution and water shortage, and they have no money to invest."

A quarter of the world's people, living mainly in developing countries, lack access to drinking water, and around 3 billion people lack sewage-treatment facilities, says the Vision 21 report that provided background information for the World Commission report.

"The world is now beginning to feel the pangs of a more chronic and systemic water crisis," said the World Commission report.

More than 3 million children die annually of water-related diseases such as diarrhea and fecal-oral infections, the world's greatest source of infant mortality.

"In terms of percentage, the situation has grown better, but in absolute numbers, it is much worse," said Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the World Commission on Water and World Bank vice president for special projects.

OLD AND NEW PROBLEMS

For Mr. Serageldin, the "old problem" of billions of people without access to fresh water and sanitation and a whole list of "new problems" add to the crisis. …