Crisis in the South

By Biswas, Asit K. | UNESCO Courier, May 1993 | Go to article overview
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Crisis in the South

Biswas, Asit K., UNESCO Courier

As a result of poverty, population growth, urbanization and pollution, water management is set to become the most crucial natural resource issue facing the developing world

THE days when water could be considered a cheap and plentiful resource are virtually over, and many parts of the developing world are already facing a water crisis which is likely to intensify significantly during the coming decades. This crisis in the South is the direct result of four interrelated phenomena.

First, since nearly all the easily available sources of water have now been developed or are in the process of development, the unit costs of future projects are bound to rise. Meanwhile, many developing countries are saddled with very high levels of debt, and the amount of new investment available, both internally and externally, is limited. In addition, competition for available funds is intense.

Second, current estimates indicate that by the year 2050 world population is likely to double to 10.64 billion, of which developing countries will contribute nearly 87 per cent, or 9.29 billion. While there is no one-to-one relationship between population and water requirements, it is clear that with a substantial increase in population, water requirements in the South are bound to increase as well. Furthermore, past experience indicates that as standards of living rise so do per capita water requirements, and so if current poverty-alleviation programmes succeed, these requirements will increase further.

Third, as the impact of human activities increases, water is being contaminated by more and more waste products such as untreated or partially-treated sewage, agricultural chemicals and industrial effluents. Already many sources of water near urban centres of developing countries have been seriously affected.

The fourth major factor relates to the increasing delays in implementing new water projects that are likely in the coming decades owing to higher costs and lack of funds. Social and environmental factors will also significantly delay project initiation time, certainly more than in recent decades.

In the South there will be increasing pressure to make water management more efficient than ever before. However, the amount of time available for these improvements is likely to be short--certainly no more than a decade, or at most two. While technological problems may be comparatively easy to solve, political, institutional and social constraints are likely to be a very different matter. They may, in fact, pose the most difficult challenge for water management in the South in the twenty-first century.

Here are some priority areas for action:

* Raising the global profile of freshwater issues. Efficient water development and management will require significantly more capital than the countries of the South have access to at present. Until water is placed squarely on the international and national agenda, the necessary funds will not be forthcoming.

* The conservation and efficient use of water have only received lip-service so far. Since agriculture is by far the largest user of water, efficient irrigation management will undoubtedly be a major conservation option in the future.

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