Global Action Required to Avert Water Crisis, Say Reports

As World Water Week wraps up in Stockholm, Sweden, two new studies suggest that the world’s deteriorating water situation deserves more attention than ever. A comprehensive report from the global conservation organization WWF, released August 16, details how the looming water crisis is now affecting rich countries as well as poor. Global warming, diminishing wetlands, and inadequate resource management are the main causes of expanding water shortages worldwide, according to the group. The second study, issued by the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) on August 21, concludes that one-third of the human population—mostly in the developing world—is now short of water.

While the studies offer similar suggestions for reducing water scarcity, WWF’s analysis presents a range of solutions for wealthier countries that require significant upfront costs. The IWMI report, in contrast, encourages developing countries to forego expensive schemes in favor of low-cost solutions.

According to WWF, leaks in London’s water mains waste as many as 300 Olympic swimming pools of water every day, while parts of Australia and the United States are using far more water than can be replenished naturally. Meanwhile, wetlands worldwide are being lost to development at a staggering rate. Among other proposals, WWF supports repairing aging infrastructure, reducing water subsidies to require the agricultural sector to pay more of the true costs of water use, and conserving wetlands. “Many countries…recognize that extensive—and very expensive—repairs are required to reduce some of the damage inflicted on water systems and catchments in the past,” the report notes.

IWMI, while recognizing the importance of addressing water scarcity in wealthier nations, focuses greater attention on water deficits in the developing world, pushing for greater efficiency in rain-fed agriculture as a cost-effective way to conserve water, produce more food, and reduce poverty. The report notes that agriculture accounts for 74 percent of global water use, while industry is responsible for 18 percent and domestic use only 8 percent. Low-cost practices like water harvesting and storage, using hardier crops, and planting seeds without plowing to facilitate better moisture retention would all enable crops to survive short periods of drought. By taking these and other appropriate actions now, IWMI concludes, countries could slow global water demand by as much as 50 percent—while also limiting the expansion of rain-fed agriculture into natural habitats to just 10 percent by 2050.

Asit Biswas, president of the Third World Center for Water Management in Mexico City and the winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize, agrees that developing nations should not focus on expensive schemes like dams to address water shortages. Instead, priority should be placed on proper management of water supplies: “In nearly all the megacities nearly 40 to 60 percent (of water) never reaches the consumer” due to leaks and poor maintenance of the water system, Biswas explains. Although he believes dire predictions of “water wars” or crises can be averted through proper water management, he notes that, “If there is going to be a crisis the problem will be because of continuing deteriorations of water quality.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.