UNITED NATIONS - Holding scores of rallies and sit-ins around world, environmental and community groups Thursday made fresh calls for drastic actions to protect the world's rivers and other water resources from the devastating impact of global warming, pollution, and toxic waste.
From Bangladesh to Burkina Faso and Mali to Mozambique, activists reminded the world that there are still more than 1 billion people who have no access to safe drinking water and another 2 billion--one third of the world's population--without any access to adequate sanitation.
According to the United Nations, which has designated March 22 as "World Water Day," despite increased international efforts, about 700 million people in 43 countries still suffer from water shortage.
Experts say if appropriate actions are not taken on time to deal with the threat of global warming, this figure could increase to more than 3 billion in less than 20 years. Climatic changes are already affecting the natural ebb and flow of most of the world's longest rivers.
According to some estimates, every year 34 million people--mostly children--die from water-related diseases like diarrhea and malaria. About 80 percent of these diseases and over one third of related deaths are caused by contaminated waters.
Those involved in global campaigns for clean-water access assert that diseases spawned by unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation can be prevented if appropriate and timely actions are taken by those who hold the economic and political power.
"The world knows how to do it. What is lacking is funding and political will," said David Douglas, president of Water Advocates, a Washington, DC-based group lobbying for increased funding for water-access programs around the world.
"Clean drinking water and basic sanitation underlie every aspect of development--from good health and education to economic growth and environmental sustainability," Douglas added in a statement.
Mindful that in many cases, the scarcity and pollution of the world's waters are indirectly causing the spread of extreme poverty and deadly diseases, activists demanded the world's richest nations, which are largely responsible for industrial pollution, take responsibility to overcome the water crisis.
In Ghana, for instance, activists associated with the environmental group WaterAid presented a petition to German diplomats asking them to ensure that when the G8 leaders meet next time they put water on top of their agenda.
The activists believe that a global "action plan," forged at the highest political levels, would help ensure the world's poorest people have access to clean water.
In addition to Germany, the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations includes the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and Russia. At a UN summit held in New York in 2001, many nations, including the G8, agreed to make joint efforts to guarantee at least half a billion more people in the world have access to clean water by 2015.
For their part, UN officials responsible for monitoring the world's food production and consumption also touted the urgency of dealing with the world's water crisis.
"This is the challenge of the 21st century," said Dr. Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, about the water crisis. "The bulk of that challenge lies in finding more effective ways to conserve, use, and protect the world's water resources."
Noting that agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn from lakes, waterways, and aquifers around the world, Diouf estimated that with the growing demand for food, 14 percent more freshwater will need to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes in the next 30 years.
"Food is water," he said. "Without water, we cannot produce; and without it, we simply cannot eat. It takes 1,000 to 2,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of wheat and 13,000 to 15,000 liters to produce the same quantity of grain-fed beef."
As population grows and development needs call for increased allocations of water for cities, agriculture, and industries, said Diouf, the increased pressure on water resources could lead "to tensions, conflicts among users, and excessive strain on the environment."
There are indications around the world that Diouf's predications may already be coming true. On World Water Day, in India, activists used the occasion to draw the world's attention to the growing phenomenon of privatization of water and its abuse at the hands of commercial enterprises.
More than 300 demonstrators marched to the National Planning Commission's offices in the capital city of New Delhi seeking action from the government on water issues with regard to the soft drink giant Coca Cola's bottling operations in rural parts of the country. Eyewitnesses said more than 40 activists were arrested.
Indian water advocacy groups hold Coca Cola responsible for water shortages and contamination in many areas, citing the company's mining of groundwater as a cause for the drying of community wells and other water sources.
The company has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
"The world needs to know that Coca Cola has an extremely unsustainable relationship with water, its primary raw material," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, a campaign group that works closely with a number of U.S.-based environmental groups.
"Drinking Coca Cola contributes directly to the loss of lives, livelihoods, and communities in India," Srivastava added in a statement. "On this World Water Day, we encourage people around the world to think before they drink Coca Cola."
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