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Water, water everywhere, only if we share
January 2, 2014, 11:24 am
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Since 1993, when the United Nations designated March 22 as World Water Day with the aim of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater, and the need for its sustainable management, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people having access to freshwater. In the two decades, between 1990 and 2010, more than two billion people gained access to clean drinking water sources. It is estimated that at the end of 2010, some 89 percent of the world’s population, or 6.1 billion people, used improved drinking water sources such as piped water supplies and protected wells. 

But all is not quiet rosy on the water front.  As the world gathered at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 11 February, 2013 to officially launch this year as the UN sponsored International Year of Water Cooperation (IYWC), there were 786 million people around the world who still did not have access to clean drinking water. This number, which represents 11 percent of the world population, together with the 2.4 billion people in the world without access to improved sanitation facilities, left a large section of the world’s citizens, especially children, vulnerable to diarrhea, and other ‘Water Sanitation and Hygiene’ (WASH) related diseases. In 2011 alone, 11 million lives were lost to diarrhea and there were four billion episodes of other WASH related illnesses.

The slogan for this year’s IYWC, ‘Water water everywhere, only if we share’ was coined by Megha Kumar of India, who was among the young delegates gathered at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to chalk out the Youth Declaration on Water Consumption. The amount of freshwater available around the world is sufficient to adequately meet the needs of the world’s population, but the problem lies in its distribution. Some of the nations with the least access to freshwater are also hampered by poverty that denies them the ability to access modern technologies like desalination or the use of high-powered water pumps.

The disparity in water distribution across the globe is highlighted by the following facts and figures: The 786 million without access to improved water sources are not evenly spread across the globe, across regions or even across countries. They are also not evenly divided between urban and rural populations, or between the rich and poor. For instance, more than 85 percent of the world’s population lives in the driest part of the planet. Also, while coverage of improved water supply sources is 90 percent in Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa and large parts of Asia, it is only 61 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 56 percent in Oceania.

Seven out of ten people without access to clean water live in rural areas; and, while eight out of ten people living in urban areas have piped water connections on their premises, only three out of ten people in rural areas have such facility. Among the poorest fifth of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, only 35 percent have access to improved water supply sources; while in the richest fifth of the population in the same area, over 90 percent have access. This discrepancy in water availability is worrisome, as the people who are most susceptible to water borne diseases are usually the poor and those with the least access to immediate medical care live in rural communities.

If the distribution of water is uneven, it is even more so when it comes to availability. Here are some interesting water facts:
Over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water; but 97.5 percent of that water is saline leaving only 2.5 percent as freshwater. Nearly 70 percent of this freshwater, or 1.75 percent of total water, is locked up as snow on mountain tops and as ice over polar icecaps and Greenland. A large part of the remaining 0.75 percent is present as soil moisture or lies in deep underground aquifers not easily accessible for human use. The amount of naturally occurring freshwater that is readily available for human consumption works out to less than 0.01 percent of all water available on Earth.

It is only this meager amount of freshwater that is readily available from lakes, rivers, reservoirs, wells and underground aquifers that can be tapped at an affordable cost. It is this portion of water that is sustainable as it is replenished by snow and rainfall. And it is this amount of water that has to be shared by the world’s growing population that in last count had surpassed seven billion. Unfortunately, it is this same limited quantity of available freshwater that is regularly polluted by industrial and domestic chemicals as well as through runoffs from agriculture land sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.

It is estimated that agricultural use accounts for about 75 percent of total global water consumption, industry uses another 20 percent, leaving approximately 5 percent for domestic consumption. According to a UNESCO study, people in developed countries on average consume about ten times more water daily than those in developing countries. The average person in developed countries uses 500-800 liters per day, compared to 60-150 liters per day in developing countries.  In regions with insufficient water resources, this figure may be as low as 20-60 liters per day.

It is worth noting that it takes 2.5 billion gallons of water per day to irrigate the world’s golf courses. According to the World Health Organization, the same amount of water could support 475 million people with their minimum daily requirements. A country is said to experience water stress for all or part of the year when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person per year; when this drops below 1,000 cubic meters the country is said to face water scarcity. Growth in population and increasing pollution play a significant role in availability of fresh water. Globally, the annual population increase of nearly 80 million implies an increase in demand of 64 billion cubic meters of freshwater.

In 1995, over 31 countries, home to nearly half a billion people, regularly faced either water stress or water scarcity. By 2025, it is estimated that 48 countries containing about 3 billion people will face water shortages. By 2050 the figures will be 54 countries containing 4 billion people, or 40 percent of the projected world population of 9.4 billion. While projections are not predictions, these figures point to the need for urgent attention to issues of stabilizing population growth and using water resources sustainably.

The countries of the Middle-East and North Africa face the worst prospects. It is estimated that two out of every three people will live in water-stressed areas by the year 2025. In Africa alone, it is estimated that 25 countries will be experiencing water stress by 2025. It is believed that since 1972, the Middle-East has steadily been withdrawing more water from its rivers and aquifers every year than is being replenished. Currently, for example, Jordan and Yemen withdraw 30 percent more water from groundwater supplies every year than is replenished. A seven year satellite based study by NASA revealed that from 2003, countries in the Euphrates and Tigris basin lost 144 cubic kilometers of stored freshwater; 60 percent of this was attributed to pumping up of groundwater stored in deep aquifers.

Water resources in the region are increasingly becoming scarce, especially for the millions there who already lack access to sanitary water. Some of these countries, including Yemen, Iraq and all of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are facing unique problems that require immediate global attention. All the GCC countries rely on desalination plants to provide drinking water to their population. The world’s 14,500 desalination plants together produced around 68 million cubic meters in 2010, this is expected to double to 120 million cubic meters by 2020; around 40 million cubic meters are likely to come up in the Middle East, when over 40 desalination plants are likely to come online by 2020. So is desalination the answer to the world’s growing water problem?

A recent study by the World Bank concluded that desalination alone cannot deliver the promise of improved water supply. In addition to its high setup and maintenance costs, most desalination plants in the region use fossil fuels that significantly pollute the environment and increase the salinity of waters around the plant. The increased salinity causes death of marine life and widespread damage to the marine environment.  The study showed that politically determined low water tariffs have resulted in increased water usage, poor water management and high water losses.

Despite recent improvements in desalination technology that have made it significantly cheaper, more reliable, less energy-intensive and more environmentally friendly than it was a few decades ago, desalination, just like the use high-powered pumps to draw deep underground water, unless used wisely can lead to irredeemable damage to the environment and ultimately to the amount of freshwater available for posterity.

In many parts of the world industrial and public water demands have grown to exceed natural available supplies. In future, this scarcity could pave the way for internal, regional and trans-border conflicts that could have global consequences. It is imperative that nations around the world cooperate to implement strong water management policies within their own borders and beyond it to protect the world’s freshwater resources. Safeguarding water resources and ensuring its equitable, effective and efficient use will require an integrated approach that brings together international organizations, national authorities and individuals.

-Times Kuwait Report

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