Water woes ahead Spreading crisis: Pressure on water supplies threatens cities in 21st century.

March 24, 1996

POLITICS, ETHNICITY, religion, ideology. These forces may have shaped some of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. But in the next century, many parts of the world may be fighting about something much less abstract: water.

This is nothing new. For years, people have died from the effects of contaminated water. One of the great triumphs of civil engineering that made cities possible was the development of sewage and sanitation systems.

Now, officials of an upcoming United Nations summit on urban problems say the breakdown or absence of adequate water and sewage systems is threatening cities around the world, especially those burdened by rapid growth and concentrated poverty. According to Dr. Wally N'Dow, secretary general of the conference, most cities in the developing world will face extreme water shortages within 15 years.

Even in affluent countries, some cities are finding that water shortages are hindering further growth. Houston and Los Angeles fall into this category. But their problems pale in comparison to places like Mexico City, where the plateau on which the city is built has sunk about 35 feet in the past 70 years as water has been withdrawn from underground aquifers.

In many cities, the pressure on water supplies is compounded by an aging infrastructure, in which leaks are made worse by constant attempts to tap into pipes illegally. U.N. officials estimate that in the developing world half of all potable water is wasted or lost to leakage.

Meanwhile, the number of people whose health is threatened by scarce or unsafe water grows larger each day. And since the diseases that can arise from these conditions cholera is a good example can quickly spread, the danger is not confined to the people most affected each day. In the coming century, water woes will rise on the list of threats to the safety and security of people everywhere, regardless of the abundance that may surround them now.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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