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World Day for Water
22 March 1999

Unsafe Water: 3.3 Billion Illnesses and 5.3 Million Deaths
Yearly Price Tab for Safe Water: $US50 to $US105 Per Person

NAIROBI, 18 March 1999 - Clean, safe water can be brought to the 1.4 billion people around the world without it for as little as $US50 per person, which can prevent many of the 3.35 billion cases of illness and 5.3 million deaths caused each year by unsafe water, says a United Nations analysis.

At any given time, an estimated one half of people in developing countries are suffering from diseases caused either directly by infection through the consumption of contaminated water or food, or indirectly by disease-carrying organisms (vectors), such as mosquitoes, that breed in water. These diseases include diarrhea, schistosomiasis, dengue fever, infection by intestinal worms, malaria, river blindness (onchocerciasis) and trachoma (which alone causes almost six million cases of blindness or severe complications annually).

The UN warns that unless action is stepped up, the number of people without access to safe water will increase to 2.3 billion by 2025, with the number of those who die from unsafe water expected to jump sharply as well.

Right now, 20 percent of the world's population in 30 countries face water shortages, a figure that will rise to 30 percent of the world's population, in 50 countries, by 2025, according to the UN, observing World Day for Water on March 22. The theme of World Water Day 1999 is: "Everyone lives downstream," meant to convey that problems in one part of a watershed, or even in a country abroad, can affect people great distances away.

“Driven by a rising global standard of living and increasing food production, water demand is increasing at twice the population growth rate,” says Hans van Ginkel, Rector of the UN University (UNU), an international community of scholars engaged in research, training and knowledge dissemination to promote the UN's aims of peace and progress.

In many countries, water shortages stem from inefficient use, degradation of the available water by pollution and the unsustainable use of underground water in aquifers, the UN says. For example, 40 to 60 per cent of water used by utilities is lost to leakage, theft and poor accounting.

How bad is the water crisis:

  • Every 8 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease;

  • 50 percent of people in developing countries suffer from one or more water-related diseases;
  • 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water;
  • 50 percent of people on earth lack adequate sanitation;
  • 20 percent of freshwater fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction from contaminated water.

“Not only is the toll a human tragedy, but it means these people are less able to carry on productive lives, and this undermines social and economic development,” says Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Mr. Toepfer notes that women and girls in developing countries spend more than 10 million person-years in aggregate each year fetching water from distant, often polluted sources.

Ironically, most available fresh water is found in developed nations, which have one-fifth of the world's population. Nearly all of the 3 billion increase in global population expected by 2025 will be in developing countries, where water is often already scarce, or comes in monsoons, hurricanes and floods, draining off the land quickly.

Getting Water to the Poor

The estimated capital cost to provide safe water in rural areas is $US50 per person; $US105 per person in cities, the UN says. Providing sanitation can be done for an additional $US30 or less per person in rural areas, $US145 in urban areas.

The UN estimates the overall price to bring low-cost safe water and sanitation to all those who need it today (and will in the next decade, given population growth) in rural and low-income urban areas at $US23 to $US25 billion per year over eight to 10 years. Current world investment is $US8 billion per year, leaving a $US15 to $US17 billion shortfall — an amount roughly equal to annual pet food purchases in Europe and the USA.

Water can be provided with these funds in rural and low-income urban areas through the utilization of low-cost technologies that include handpumps, gravity-fed systems and rainwater collection, which would be built to serve entire rural villages or urban neighborhoods, rather than bringing indoor plumbing to individual houses. The provisions would include pumps, pipes, the training of workers, and the development and strengthening of water management practices.

"This is the absolute minimum that the world community must provide to the world's poor without water," says Dr. van Ginkel. "It will save countless lives, and greatly lessen the burden on millions of those, mostly women and children, who must trudge miles each day to bring water to their homes."

The Coming Water Crisis

The consequences of the increasing global water scarcity will largely be felt in the arid and semi-arid areas, in rapidly growing coastal regions and in the megacities of the developing world. Water scientists predict that many of these cities already are, or will be, unable to provide safe, clean water and adequate sanitation facilities for their citizens — two fundamental requirements for human well being and dignity.

The problem will be magnified by rapid urban growth. In 1950, there were less than 100 cities with a population in excess of 1 million; by 2025, that number is expected to rise to 650. By the year 2000, some 23 cities — 18 of them in the developing world — will have populations exceeding 10 million. On a global scale, half of the world's people will live in urban areas.

Some of the world's largest cities, including Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dhaka, Lima and Mexico City, depend heavily on groundwater for their water supply, but it is unlikely that dependence on aquifers, which take many years to recharge, will be sustainable. Groundwater from aquifers beneath or close to Mexico City, for example, provides it with more than 3.2 billion liters per day, but already water shortages occur in many parts of the capital

The UN University says that as urban populations grow, water use will need to shift from agriculture to municipal and industrial uses, making decisions about allocating between different sectors difficult. Water scarcity is aggravated by four principal human failures:

  • Reluctance to treat water as an economic as well as a public good;
  • Excessive reliance in many places on inefficient institutions for water and wastewater services;
  • Fragmented management of water between sectors and institutions, with little regard for conflicts between social, economic and environmental objectives; and
  • Inadequate recognition of the health and environmental concerns associated with current practices.

“Instead, we must adopt a new approach to water resources management in the new millennium so as to overcome these failures, reduce poverty and conserve the environment — all within the framework of sustainable development,” says Dr. van Ginkel.

The UN also warns of emerging trends that indicate the world is approaching a 'water crisis' in several regions — most notably the Middle East and North.

“The main constraint to agricultural production in many areas in the near future will be the availability of water, not land,” Dr. van Ginkel says.

Water Wars?

Hydrologists have carefully plotted the water equation. The amount of fresh water on the planet is finite — less than a million cubic kilometers. That was enough in 1700, when less than a billion people shared the planet, and in 1900, when some 2 billion people were alive. Now, there are more than 6 billion people and the freshwater supply is stretched to the limit. By 2025, the same amount of water must feed an additional 3 billion people.

The populations of water-short countries, today estimated to be 550 million, are expected to increase to 1 billion by the year 2010. Water shortages will be especially adverse for agriculture, which takes 70-80 percent of all available fresh water in the world.

Without stepped up effort, “common sense tells us that national tensions over water could jump perilously,” says Dr. van Ginkel. “Conflicts over water, both international and civil wars, threaten to become a key part of the 21st Century landscape.”

According to Klaus Toepfer a future war over water is a distinct possibility. Repeating a view he has made before, Toepfer says he is “convinced that there will be conflict over natural resources, particularly water.” The UNEP Executive Director advocates monitoring worldwide reserves of drinking water, establishing cooperative agreements on the use of water and economic instruments to stimulate new technologies to promote water conservation.

Geography will also contribute to the water conflicts. Nearly 47 percent of the land area of the world, excluding Antarctica, falls within international water basins shared by two or more countries. There are 44 countries with at least 80 per cent of their total areas within international basins. The number of river and lake basins shared by two or more countries are now more than 300. In Africa alone, there are 54 drainage basins covering approximately 50 per cent of the total land area of the continent, including their water resources.

In the coming decades, accelerating environmental pressures could transform the very foundations of the international political system. There are at least 25 million environmental refugees today, a total to be compared with 22 million refugees of the traditional kind. They are mainly located in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China, Mexico and Central America. The total may well double by the year 2010, as increasing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on their already degraded environments, including their water resources.

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