Published on Wednesday, August 20, 2008 by Environmental News Service (ENS)
World Water Crisis Underlies World Food Crisis
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – The world’s supplies of clean, fresh water cannot sustain
today’s “profligate” use and inadequate management, which have brought shrinking
food supplies and rising food costs to most countries, WWF Director General James
Leape told the opening session of World Water Week in Stockholm [on Monday].
“Behind the world food crisis is a global freshwater crisis, expected to rapidly
worsen as climate change impacts intensify,” Leape said. “Irrigation-fed agriculture
provides 45 percent of the world’s food supplies, and without it, we could not feed
our planet’s population of six billion people.”
Leape warns that many of the world’s irrigation areas are highly stressed and
drawing more water than rivers and groundwater reserves can sustain, especially in
view of climate change. At the same time, he said, freshwater food reserves are
declining in the face of the quickening pace of dam construction and unsustainable
water extractions from rivers.
At a time when billions of people live without access to safe drinking water or
suffer ill health due to poor sanitation, when food producers battle biofuel
producers for land and water resources, and when global climate change is altering
the overall water balance, 2,500 water experts are gathered this week at the
Stockholm International Fairs and Congress Center to craft solutions to these
World Water Week is an annual event co-ordinated by the Stockholm International
Water Institute. This year’s conference has the overall theme of “Progress and
Prospects on Water: For A Clean and Healthy World with Special Focus on Sanitation”
in keeping with the UN declaration of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation.
Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands had good news for the delegates in his
opening speech today.
The Prince of Orange, who chairs the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water
and Sanitation during this special year, announced, “The number of people living
without a supply of improved drinking water has now dropped well below one billion!”
“More than half the global population now have water piped to their homes and the
number of people using unimproved water supplies continues to decline,” he said,
praising the delegates for this accomplishment.
This year, the prince said, progress towards adequate sanitation has begun on
international, regional, national and local levels. “The regional sanitation
conferences for example, such as LatinoSan, AfricaSan, EaSan and SacoSan, produced
unprecedented declarations that provide a strong foundation for developing the water
and sanitation sector in these regions,” he said.
In June, the African Union Summit on Water and Sanitation in Sharm El Sheikh,
attended by 52 heads of state and government, unanimously adopted a declaration on
water and sanitation that shows that African leaders are giving top priority to
water and sanitation, the prince said. “It also provides a solid basis for further
developing the sector in Africa. I personally consider this result to be an enormous
But Prince Willem said much more must be done to meet the UN’s Millenium Development
Goal to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe
drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 from the year 2000 baseline.
Citing a report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, he said, “The report’s
worrying conclusion is that, at the current rate, the world will miss its MDG
sanitation target by more than 700 million people. If we are to reach the target we
now need to provide at least 173 million people per year with access to improved
A consistent supporter of World Water Week, the prince told the delegates he finds
it “unthinkable” to let a year go by without visiting the conference, although he is
supposed to be in Beijing observing the Olympic Games in his capacity as a member of
the International Organizing Committee.
“I see similarities between these athletes and yourselves,” said the prince. “You
show the same commitment and willpower. And the Olympic Dream is also your dream: to
strive for a bright future of mankind. ‘One world, one dream.’ A world in which
everyone can lead a healthy life in dignity. A world that offers the chance of
personal development for all. This is our common dream.”
The delegates will need all the inspiration they can get to overcome the problems
As developing countries confront the first global food crisis since the 1970s as
well as unprecedented water scarcity, a new 53 city survey presented at the
conference by the International Water Management Institute indicates that 80 percent
of those studied are using untreated or partially treated wastewater for
In over 70 percent of the cities studied, more than half of urban agricultural land
is irrigated with wastewater that is either raw or diluted in streams.
“Irrigating with wastewater isn’t a rare practice limited to a few of the poorest
countries,” said IWMI researcher Liqa Raschid-Sally and lead author of a report on
the survey results. “It’s a widespread phenomenon, occurring on 20 million hectares
across the developing world, especially in Asian countries, like China, India and
Vietnam, but also around nearly every city of sub-Saharan Africa and in many Latin
American cities as well.”
Wastewater is most commonly used to produce vegetables and cereals, especially rice,
according to this and other IWMI reports, raising concerns about health risks for
consumers, particularly when they eat uncooked vegetables.
In Accra, Ghana’s capital city, for instance, an estimated one-tenth of the city’s
two million inhabitants daily purchase vegetables produced on just 100 hectares of
urban agricultural land irrigated with wastewater, says the IWMI report. “That gives
you an idea,” said Raschid-Sally, “of the large potential of wastewater agriculture
for both helping and hurting great numbers of urban consumers.”
“And it isn’t just affluent consumers of exotic vegetables whose welfare is at
stake,” she added. “Poor consumers of inexpensive street food also depend on urban
Consumers across the 53 cities said they would prefer to avoid wastewater produce.
But most of the time, they have no way of knowing the origin of the products they
buy. Farmers, too, are aware that irrigating with wastewater may pose health risks
both for themselves and the consumers of their produce, but they have little choice,
since safe groundwater is seldom an accessible alternative, according to the IWMI
Few developing countries have official, enforceable guidelines for the use of
wastewater in agriculture. As a result, though the practice may be theoretically
forbidden or controlled, it is in fact “unofficially tolerated,” the IWMI found.
The report highlights indigenous practices that can reduce the health risks from
wastewater agriculture. In Indonesia, Nepal, Ghana and Vietnam, for example, farmers
store wastewater in ponds to allow suspended solids to settle out.
Countries lacking the means for adequate wastewater treatment can still reduce
health risks through low-cost interventions, such as the use of drip irrigation and
washing of fresh produce in clean water.Of the world’s total water resources, 97.5
percent is salty and of the remaining but mainly frozen freshwater, only one percent
is available for human use, said Leape, the WWF chief.
“Even this tiny proportion, however, would be enough for humans to live on Earth if
the water cycle was properly functioning and if we managed our water use wisely,” he
But Leape warned the conference delegates that the world is a long way from being
ready for a worsening water crisis in part because of climate change and lack of an
ecosystem approach to freshwater management.
“Water management for human needs alone is damaging the natural systems we all
depend on,” Leape said. “No management is even worse.”
“We are also concerned that the world continues to mainly discuss adaption to
climate change rather than doing it,” Leape said. “We have been doing it, all over
the world, and we have found that that improving the health of freshwater ecosystems
now makes a great contribution to improving their resilience to climate impacts in
© Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008