UNESCO DIRECTOR-GENERAL WARNS OF LOOMING WATER CRISISParis - On World Water Day, March 22, UNESCO's Director-General warns of a looming water crisis and states that "if water is in crisis, development is in crisis too". He insists that "only by integrating scientific and ethical principles with socially sound practices can we secure a sustainable 'water world' for generations to come."
The water crisis is one of the most critical challenges facing the world today. It should not be forgotten that 97.5 percent of the "Blue Planet's'' water is too salty for human use, and just 0.26 percent of the remaining fresh water is easily accessible. The rest is trapped deep and frozen in Antarctica and Greenland.
However, global demand for this finite resource has increased more than sixfold over the past century - more than double the rate of population growth, according to UNESCO assessments.Without better management of water resources and related ecosystems, two-thirds of humanity will suffer from moderate to severe shortages by the year 2025. By 2050, all regions of the world will be affected if population growth continues at the current rate.
Today, about 20 percent of the world's population lack access to safe and reliable water supplies, and more than 50 percent are without basic sanitation. At any given time, about half the people living in developing countries suffer from water-related illnesses such as diarrhoea, parasitic infections, river blindness and malaria. These diseases kill about five million people each year, especially children under the age of five.
Expanding access to water is just one part of the problem facing developing countries. They can barely afford to maintain existing public water supply systems. In cities and towns throughout the South, it is common to find that about half the water passing through old and badly serviced systems is lost to leakage. Moreover, sewage is rarely treated and inevitably finds it way into rivers, streams and groundwater supplies. UNESCO has found that a single cubic metre of untreated waste water can contaminate 10 cubic metres of clean water.
Even in industrialized countries, more than 25 per cent or more of water passing through public supply systems is wasted. Although these countries generally have laws requiring adequate treatment of sewage and waste water, they are not spared from the legacy of industrial pollution leftby previous decades. Toxic chemicals and heavy metals like lead, mercury and chromium have built-up in river sediments, which can devastate the ecosystem and enter the food chain by collecting in fish consumed by humans.
Agriculture is another majorsource of pollution. Nitrate pollution from excessive use of fertilizers is now one of the most serious water quality problems facing countries around the world, rich and poor. In the United States, for example, three-quarters of the groundwater supply in California has been degraded by nitrates, pesticides and salinity from intensive agriculture.
Agriculture is also the biggest consumer of water, accounting for about 80 percent of global demand. However, about 60 percent of the water used is wasted because of leakage and evaporation from irrigation channels, according to UNESCO assessments. This wasted water actually harms the soil and crops, especially in arid zones. It seeps between crops, where it evaporates and leaves the soil waterlogged and saline, which reduces crop yields. In this vicious circle, farmers use increasing amounts of water to grow fewer crops while further damaging the soil. More than 30 percent of the world's irrigated fields have already been affected.
Despite ongoing progress with technological options like desalination, there are no quick fixes. Given the growing demand of an increasing population, ecological conservation and economic development, the world has no choice but to take a more holistic approach to water management. For example, it is still common practice, especially in developing countries, to build new supply schemes in cities without constructing drainage networks and treatment facilities for waste-water.
Given the urgency of the situation worldwide, water has become a key priority for UNESCO and its International Hydrological Programme (IHP). Created in 1975, the IHP has pioneered efforts to provide a scientific basis for assessing global water supply and developing ethical and socio-economic principles for water management. By hosting the Secretariat of the World Water Assessment Programme, which involves 23 United Nations agencies, the IHP is also leading concerted efforts to produce the World Water Development Report. The first edition will be released at the 3rd World Water Forum at Kyoto, Japan, in March 2003. For the first time, national decision-makers, non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens will have access to a regular assessment of the global water supply.
Increasing competition for scarce water resources is prompting fears that future wars will be fought over water. More than 260 rivers cross national boundaries and these basins are home to more than 40 percent of the world population. While water has often been used as an arm in conflict, the last full-fledged war to be fought over water took place about 4,500 years ago over the Tigris-Euphrates.
History has shown that shared water problems are not only a source of conflict but can also be a catalyst for co-operation. To optimize this potential, UNESCO has joined forces with Green Cross International, the non-governmental organization headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. A new joint-project aims to provide decision-makers as well as hydrological experts and students with the negotiating skills required to prevent international water-related conflicts. In the words of UNESCO's Director-General, the goal is "to make the 21st century an era of "water peace" rather than one of "water wars."
Contact: Amy Otchet, Editorial Section, Bureau of Public Information
Email: A.Otchet@unesco.org, tel: 33 1 45 68 46 83