UN: World Water Crisis Due to Leadership Inertia

PARIS, France, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - A global water crisis of the future is taking shape today, due to "attitude and behavior problems," on the part of national leaders, says a report made public today written jointly by all United Nations agencies that deal with water. "This crisis is one of water governance, essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water," the agencies report.

The 23 UN agencies that contributed to the World Water Development Report, "Water for People, Water for Life" together constitute the World Water Assessment Programme whose secretariat is hosted by UNESCO. "Water resources will steadily decline because of population growth, pollution and expected climate change," they predict.


The world's supply of freshwater is shrinking while demand grows. (Photo courtesy Strathcona County)
Water consumption has nearly doubled since 1950, the report finds. "A child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times the water resources of one in the developing world. Meanwhile water quality continues to worsen," it states.

"Attitude and behavior problems lie at the heart of the crisis," says the report, "inertia at leadership level, and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem means we fail to take the needed timely corrective actions." The water crisis is getting worse and will continue to do so, the agencies say, unless countries and communities, working alone and together, take action to safeguard water supplies.

"When all is said and done," the report says, "it is action at the local level, improving the lives of real people, which counts the most."

Written as a major United Nations contribution to 2003: The International Year of Freshwater, the report will be formally presented to the international community on World Water Day, March 22, during the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan. A series of high level panel discussions will be organized to discuss the results.

"Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth," says UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura.


Kuwait, situated between Iraq and The Gulf's northwest shore, has less water available for each resident than any other country. (Photo courtesy Vollmer-Reisen)
The poorest five countries in terms of available water per person are: Kuwait, followed by Gaza Strip, United Arab Emirates, Bahamas, and Qatar.

The top five water rich countries, with the exception of Greenland and Alaska, are: French Guiana, Iceland, Guyana, Suriname, and Congo.

The United States, including Hawaii, ranks 52nd of the 180 countries listed in terms of water availability.

"No region will be spared from the impact of this crisis which touches every facet of life, from the health of children to the ability of nations to secure food for their citizens," said Matsuura. "Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing at an unsustainable rate. Over the next 20 years, the average supply of water worldwide per person is expected to drop by a third."

The UN agencies predict that by the year 2025, water withdrawal will increase by 50 percent in developing countries and 18 percent in developed countries. "Effects on the world's ecosystems have the potential to dramatically worsen the present situation," they state.


Waterfall at Lake Vyrnwy, Wales (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Growing water demand cannot be met if water sources are degraded, the report warns. "By depleting and polluting rivers, lakes and wetlands, we are destroying ecosystems which play an essential role in filtering and assuring freshwater resources."

As demand for water grows, "there is much talk of looming water wars," the agencies acknowledge. But their report presents evidence that while water scarcity will intensify conflicts between states, these situations will be unlikely to "explode into full fledged water wars."

The report highlights the findings of a study of every single water related interaction between two countries or more over the past 50 years. Of the total of 1,831 interactions, the majority, 1,228, were cooperative. They involved the signing of about 200 water sharing treaties or the construction of new dams.

A total of 507 conflictive events were documented. Only 37 involved violence, of which 21 consisted of military acts - 18 between Israel and its neighbors.

"Some of the most vociferous enemies around the world have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so concerning international rivers," says the report. "The Mekong Committee, for example, continued to exchange data throughout the Viet Nam War. The Indus River Commission survived through two wars between India and Pakistan. And all ten Nile riparian states are currently involved in negotiations over development of the basin."

Urban areas lacking water infrastructure are among the world's most life threatening environments when infrastructure and services are lacking, the agencies report. According to a survey of 116 cities, urban areas in Africa are the worst served, with only 18 percent of households connected to sewers. The connection rate in Asia is just over 40 percent.

"From a public health perspective," says the report, "it is better to provide a whole city's population with safe supplies to taps within 50 metres of their home than to provide only the richest 20 percent of households with water piped to their home."

Today industry accounts for 22 percent of total water use in the world: 59 percent in high income countries and eight percent in low income countries. The report predicts that this average will reach 24 percent by 2025.

About 25,000 people die every day from hunger, the agencies report. An estimated 815 million people suffer from undernourishment - 777 million in developing countries, 27 million in countries in transition and 11 million in industrialized countries.


Irrigation of a cotton field in Israel's Hula Valley, 1993. (Photo by U. Keren courtesy FAO )
The challenge lies in improving efficiency of land and water use, the report states. "Irrigation is extremely inefficient - close to 60 percent of the water used is wasted. This will only improve by an estimated total of four percent." The report calls for financing of better technology and to promotion of better management practices.

Concerns over water pricing and privatization are addressed in the report. "Although it is considered essential to involve the private sector in water resource management," according to the executive summary, "it should be seen as a financial catalyst - not so much as a precondition - for project development."

"Control of the assets and the resource should remain in the hands of the government and users," the agencies state.

The report details the need to make risk reduction an integral part of water resource management. While the number of geophysical disasters like earthquakes and landslides has been roughly the same, the scale and number of water related events such as droughts and floods has more than doubled since 1996.

With more than 25 world maps, many charts, graphs, and seven case studies of major river basins, the report analyzes how diverse societies cope with water scarcity, and which policies work or fail. Through the World Water Assessment Programme it lays the foundation for the United Nations to monitor and report on the state of the water resource by developing a set of standardized methodologies, data and indicators.

The World Water Assessment Programme, together with other partners, is developing the World Water Portal, to provide access to a wide body of water information to serve decision makers, water managers, technicians, and the public at large. Before going global, a prototype water portal has been developed for the Americas to test ways of sharing information among local, national and regional water organizations. Visit: http://www.waterportal-americas.org

Visit the World Water Day 2003 website at: http://www.waterday2003.org