Published on Thursday, March 20, 2008 by Inter Press Service
Climate Change Deepening World Water Crisis
by Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS – When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last January, his primary focus was not
on the impending global economic recession but on the world’s growing water
“A shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future,”
he told the annual gathering of business tycoons, academics and leaders from
governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations.
“Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the
global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over
the horizon,” he warned.
Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water
Institute, says the lack of safe drinking water for over 1.0 billion people
worldwide, and the lack of safe sanitation for over 2.5 billion, “is an acute
and devastating humanitarian crisis.”
“But this is a crisis of management, not a water crisis per se, because it is
caused by a chronic lack of funding and inadequate understanding of the need
for sanitation and good hygiene at the local level,” Berntell told IPS.
He said: “This can and must be fixed through improved governance and management,
and increased funding, and sustained efforts to achieve the U.N.’s Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs),” which include the eradication of extreme poverty and
hunger and adequate water and sanitation.
A U.N. study released on the eve of World Water Day Mar. 22 says the lack of safe
drinking water is not confined to the world’s poorer nations; it also threatens
over 100 million Europeans.
The result: nearly 40 children in Europe, mostly in Eastern Europe, die every day
due to a water-related disease: diarrhoea.
In Eastern Europe, about 16 percent of the population still does not have access
to drinking water in their homes, while in rural areas, over half of all people
suffer from the lack of safe water and adequate sanitation.
“The world water crisis is definitely very bad, particularly because it deals with
mismanagement of water and how governments have failed to secure the involvement
of local communities in the management of water,” says Sunita Narain, director of
the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, and the 2005 winner of the
prestigious annual Stockholm Water Prize.
“We, as societies, have failed to use small amounts of water for bringing large
productivity gains,” she said.
However, today the world water crisis faces yet another challenge — one of climate
change, Narain told IPS.
“And it is this challenge which the world is completely failing to do anything
about, and which will jeopardise the water security of large numbers of people,
who already live on the margins of survival,” she declared.
Responding to a question, Berntell admitted there is a “world water crisis”
judging by the number of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
And this, he said, “in a world which has the financial wealth and technical
wherewithal to solve these twin scandals”.
“We must find better ways to manage water resources, in so far as water pollution
is concerned, and to meet the food requirements of a human population which will
expand by over 3.0 billion people in 2050.”
“We also must meet the water-climate challenge. Everything could become much more
desperate and severe in the future if the proper steps are not taken,” he added.
So, it is important, Berntell argued, to make a distinction between the water
resource crisis — which is primarily caused by an overexploitation of water
resources for agricultural and industrial use, as well as pollution — and the water
service and sanitation crisis.
In a statement released Wednesday, the International Union for Conservation of
Nature (IUCN) said many rivers in developing countries and emerging economies are
now polluted to the brink of their collapse.
“The Yangtze, China’s longest river, is cancerous with pollution due to untreated
agriculture and industrial waste,” IUCN warned
Meanwhile, arguing that water shortages will drive future conflicts, the U.N.
secretary-general says the slaughter in Darfur — described as “genocide” by the
United States — was triggered by global climate change.
“It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought,” Ban
said. When Darfur’s land was rich, black farmers welcomed Arab herders and shared
With the drought, however, farmers fenced in their land to prevent overgrazing.
“For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all.
Fighting broke out,” he said.
“Water is a classic common property resource. No one really owns the problem.
Therefore, no one really owns the solution,” he declared.
Asked if the United Nations and the international community are doing enough to
help resolve the problem or even draw attention to it, Narain told IPS:
“Definitely there has been an attempt over the last few years to understand both
the nature of the crisis as well as to draw attention to it.”
“However, I believe that the international community’s understanding of what needs
to be done to resolve the water crisis has been both weak as well as misplaced.”
The reason, she pointed out, “is that the international community does not
understand water and how it affects local communities and, therefore, the United
Nations and the international community is looking for quick fix technological
solutions to what is primarily a governance issue.”
Berntell took a different perspective. “Unquestionably,” he said, “water, and in
particular sanitation, remain far too low on the international agenda.”
Access to clean water and sanitation underpin all human development efforts, and
water issues are central to climate change adaptation and sustainable development.
“But much more needs to be done to address the spectrum of challenges,” he told IPS.
The U.N. system, and the “UN-Water” collaborative effort in particular, works
extremely hard and well and is consistently improving its efforts to better
coordinate and make more effective its work, he said.
The U.N.’s declaration of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation has catalysed
increased action and attention to critical health and hygiene issues this year,
“Still, the U.N. must strengthen its efforts to coordinate its monitoring and
reporting. They cannot afford to continue delivering too many reports on overlapping
issues at the same time.”
A good starting point, he said, would be the “five ones” identified by Britain: one
annual global monitoring report; one high-level global ministerial meeting on water;
at country level, one national plan for water and sanitation; one coordinating body;
and activities of U.N. agencies on water and sanitation to be coordinated by one lead
body under the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and its country plan.
© 2008 Inter Press Service