Running out of water, running out of time

March 11, 1997|By Arun P. Elhance

NEW YORK -- Here is something to think about as celebrations to greet the dawn of the new millennium or New Age get going. Before that midnight comes around, about 27 million of the world's citizens -- currently living and yet to be born -- will have died because of water scarcity and water-borne and water-based diseases. At the rate of 25,000 deaths per day, more people, mostly infants and young children, will perish in the next three years than have been killed in all the wars in this century.

Not much will and can be done in the next thousand days to save most of these unfortunates, but international awareness and a concerted global effort, starting today, may be able to save hundreds of millions of other lives in the next century. Ninety percent of all growth in world population in the next century will concentrate in the mostly water-deficient regions in the so called ''Third World.'' Millions will die prematurely from a lack of drinking water and from diseases caused by contaminated water.

A recent U.N. report warns that some 80 countries -- supporting 40 percent of the world's population -- already suffer from serious water shortages for personal and household needs. As many as 1.2 billion people suffer physically from shortages of potable water, and 1.8 billion people lack adequate water for sanitation.

About 80 percent of all illnesses and 30 percent of all unnatural deaths in the Third World are due to water-borne diseases and consumption of polluted water. By 2025, some 37 countries are likely to be without enough water for household and agricultural needs, let alone for sustaining fisheries and animal husbandry, industries, energy production, navigation and other societal needs.

By 2000, about 300 million people in Africa alone will be living in an acutely water-scarce environment. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa water-borne and water-based diseases are already endemic. A recent World Bank report states that ''diarrheal deaths in Africa are the highest in the world; schistosomiasis affects 28 percent of the population; malaria causes 800,000 deaths every year; and onchocerciasis has caused blindness in up to 25 percent of the population in some villages.''

By 2025, Africa's population will exceed 1 billion; by then the number of African countries experiencing acute water stress will have risen to 18 compared to 8 in 1990. This would jeopardize the survival, livelihood and well-being of close to 600 million people.

Women and children in poor rural families suffer the most from water scarcity, since they often have the primary responsibility for fetching water, often highly contaminated water, in some cases from sources as far away as two or three hours of walking time. This can burn off up to 600 calories per day, about one-third of their average daily food intake.

The price of water

Even in the urban areas, scarce water of potable quality is often provided disproportionately to the upper strata of society. The urban poor have to either buy water of questionable quality from private vendors, at prices estimated to be 4 to 100 times higher than the piped city water supply, or make do with free but highly contaminated water from other sources. In both rural and urban areas infants and young children are the most vulnerable to water-borne diseases.

The Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated that for the Third World simply to maintain its presently inadequate food supply will require the extension of irrigation to an additional 53 million acres of farmland and delivery of an additional 440 billion cubic meters of water by 2000.

Recent estimates by the World Bank show a need for investing $60 to $70 billion every year over the next decade for irrigation, hydropower, water supply and sanitation in the developing world. However, only about $10 billion per year is currently invested in these countries for water and sanitation systems. Worse still, most developing countries are heavily in debt, and likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. As their populations rise, more and more water-related investments will be needed just to maintain even the currently dismal standard of living and quality of life of hundreds of millions of people.

Rivers currently provide 80 percent of human freshwater needs; many other sources -- aquifers, lakes, wetlands and marshes -- are also often linked to the catchment and drainage basins of rivers. In many areas of the world, rivers are also the most polluted sources of freshwater because of the dumping of agricultural and industrial chemicals and raw sewage.

To make matters worse, while many river basins are fully contained within the borders of individual countries, more than 200 river basins world-wide are shared by two or more countries, mostly without enforceable water-sharing agreements between them. In the absence of such agreements, unilateral over-exploitation, wastage and degradation of the scarce trans-boundary water resources continue to be the norm.

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