World Watch Magazine: Jan/Feb 2003


Washington, D.C.— An ever-growing human demand on water for irrigation, industry, and municipal use is radically diminishing and damaging natural habitats, reports the January/February edition of World Watch magazine. Humans are already using more than half of the planet’s available freshwater from rivers, lakes, streams, and shallow aquifers. By 2025, the human share could rise to more than 70 percent.

“When we ignore the water needs of wildlife, we not only undermine other species, but also threaten human prospects,” says Don Hinrichsen, author of the article “A Human Thirst.” “Unless we act quickly to reduce the demand for water, and manage the water we have better, we will pay a terrible price for plundering the Earth’s plumbing system.”

The human demand for water has been particularly devastating for wetlands and related habitats. Globally, the world has lost half of its wetlands, mostly in the last fifty years. One-fifth of the world’s freshwater fish_ 2,000 of the 10,000 species identified so far_ are endangered, vulnerable, or extinct. In North America, 67 percent of all mussels, 51 percent of crayfish, 40 percent of amphibians, 37 percent of fish, and 75 percent of all freshwater mollusks are rare, imperiled, or already gone.

Hinrichsen surveys the growing freshwater crisis around the world:

• China is draining some of its rivers dry and mining ancient aquifers that take thousands of years to recover.

• The Aral Sea in Central Asia, once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, has contracted to half its size and has lost three-quarters of its volume since the 1960s, when two rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation.

• Africa’s, Lake Chad, once the continent’s second-largest lake, has shrunk from a surface area of 25,000 square kilometers in 1960 to only 2,000 square kilometers, and the lake’s fisheries have collapsed. All large carnivores, such as lions and leopards, have been exterminated by hunting and habitat loss.


Privatizing state-run water utilities is producing massive grassroots protests from Bolivia to Ghana, reports Curtis Runyan in “Privatizing Water.” Many countries and cities have embraced privatization in order to attract the private capital and expertise needed to build or expand expensive water systems and to expand service to the millions who currently make do without piped water.

The market is huge: private companies currently provide less than 10 percent of water services worldwide. But without strong government oversight, privatization has often backfired, producing drastic rate increases, job cuts, fewer environmental safeguards, and poorer service for remote communities. For these reasons, people are resisting privatization.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, a 35% rate hike and deteriorating service led to a general strike. One protestor was shot by the Bolivian army, but the protest forced executives of the newly privatized water utility to flee, and the city government then canceled the contract.


The world’s gardens are having surprising effects on people, communities, and the environment, reports Erik Assadourian in “Cultivating the Butterfly Effect.” Assodourian writes that gardens are supplying far more than just flowers and vegetables:

• Nearly 3,000 schools in California are participating in a state-funded program, “A Garden in Every School,” learning about nutrition, healthy eating, and preparing food. A recent study found that children who worked in the school garden were significantly more willing to try new vegetables than were those of a control group who did not gardens or nutritional education.

• The Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, the largest maximum-security prison in Australia, uses gardening to help calm inmates.

• “Horticultural therapy” organizations are springing up that use gardening to provide therapy in hospitals, domestic abuse shelters, and nursing homes.

• In Tokyo, larger new private and public buildings are required by law to cover at least 20 percent of their area with gardens. The gardens help cool the city by utilizing solar energy in photosynthesis and in evaporating water from the foliage and soil. And rooftop gardens also insulate buildings, reducing energy use.


• “Oil and Blood,” a history of U.S. interests in Iraq

• “Laced with Arsenic,” a tragic story of good intentions gone awry in Bangladesh

• Environmental Intelligence: Insurance companies brace for costly climate change; Romanian activists halt World Bank funding for a new mine; study finds sprawl exacerbates drought; scientists map the malaria genome