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Washington Pressed to Lead as Water Tables Fall

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK -- Calls for increased help from Washington are on the rise as global efforts to tackle the world's burgeoning water and sanitation crisis have largely failed to produce any meaningful results so far.

0728 03"Support, sponsor, solve," read a full-page newspaper advertisement released by an advocacy group this week, urging the U.S. Congress to pass a piece of legislation that would significantly increase U.S. funding for safe drinking water worldwide.

If adopted, the proposed bill, known as the Water for the Poor Act, would allocate no less than $300 million in assistance to improve water and sanitation conditions in the developing world.

"The U.S. government can have a tremendous positive impact," said John Oldfield of Water Advocates, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization seeking to enhance U.S. support for worldwide access to safe, affordable, and sustainable drinking water and adequate sanitation.

The group has launched a nationwide campaign to gather support for the proposed legislation.

"We need Americans to write their representatives and senators to ask them to pass the Senate version and fund the Water for the Poor Act for 2008," said Oldfield, who believes the devastating effects of the water and sanitation crisis are still widely unknown by most Americans.

Researchers say every year about 5 million people die from waterborne diseases, a toll even larger than those wrought by AIDS and malaria.

The proposed bill, which is named for the late Illinois senator Paul Simon, has drawn some support from both sides of the political divide, but its adoption is still in question. Thus, advocates are pressing for further lobbying and increased public support.

Proponents of the bill say increased funding from Washington would not only save many lives, but could also result in improving public health, education, environmental sustainability, and commerce, especially in less developed regions of Africa and Asia.

Research shows that in many parts of the world water tables are continuing to fall and rivers are drying up.

"As the world's demand for water has tripled over the last half-century and as the demand for hydroelectric power has grown even faster, dams and diversions of river water have drained many rivers dry," says Lester Brown, author of several books and president of the Washington, DC-based Earth Policy Institute, an independent environmental policy think tank.

In his most recent work, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, Brown warns of the consequences of overpumping aquifers, which is occurring in a number of countries.

According to Brown, the depletion of so-called fossil aquifers, which are nonreplenishable, brings water pumping to an end, yet many countries, including China, India, and the United States -- the world's three largest grain producers -- continue to rely on this method to meet their growing water needs.

Brown says some farmers who lose their irrigation water have the option of returning to lower-yield dryland farming, if rainfall permits, but in more arid regions, such as the southwestern United States and the Middle East, the loss of irrigation water means the end of agriculture.


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A World Bank study indicates that China is currently overpumping three key river basins -- the Hai, which flows through Beijing and Tianjin; the Yellow; and the Huai. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, the shortfall in the Hai basin of nearly 40 billion tons of water per year means that when the aquifer is depleted, the grain harvest will drop by 40 million tons.

That's enough to feed 120 million Chinese, Brown says.

In India, according to Brown, water shortages are "particularly serious" because the margin between actual food consumption and survival is "precarious." In a survey of India's water situation, the 21 million wells drilled are lowering water tables in most of the country, New Scientist magazine recently reported.

In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is rain-fed and drinking water is trucked in. "When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India," warns Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station in Gujarat, India.

In Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas -- three leading grain-producing states in the United States -- the underground water table has dropped by more than 100 feet, notes Brown, saying that as a result wells have gone dry on thousands of farms across the southern Great Plains.

Pakistan, a country of 158 million people, is also mining its underground water, and appears to be experiencing similar water table issues to those seen in India. Observation wells near the capital Islamabad show the water table sinking from three to six feet a year between 1982 and 2000.

In neighboring Iran, a country of 70 million, overpumping has depleted aquifers by an average of 5 billion tons of water per year, the water equivalent of one third of its annual grain harvest. Villages in eastern Iran are being abandoned as wells go dry, generating a flow of so-called "water refugees."

And Saudi Arabia, a country of 25 million people, could soon be known as well for its water scarcity as for its oil riches. Relying heavily on subsidies, Brown notes, it developed an extensive irrigated agriculture based largely on its deep fossil aquifer. But by 2005, its wheat harvest had been lopped in half from a high of 4 million tons in 1992. Some Saudi farmers are now pumping water from wells that are nearly four fifths of a mile deep.

Brown also notes similar water crises developing in Mexico, Yemen, and Israel, where some conflicts with Palestinians have already broken out over access to ever-scarcer water resources.

Noting that the overpumping of aquifers is occurring in many countries more or less simultaneously, Brown says the resulting harvest cutbacks could come at roughly the same time, and "this day may come soon, creating potentially unmanageable food scarcity."

Oldfield's group, Water Advocates, believes the U.S. Congress can play a leadership role in mitigating the worldwide water crisis and its related sanitation and disease problems. The group is also urging the private sector in the United States to help tackle the water and sanitation challenges.

"Countries and communities without safe drinking water and sanitation are stuck back in the 1800s, a dangerous time when waterborne diseases unnecessarily killed our great-great grandparents," says Oldfield. "We have known for a long time how to solve these problems. We can and we should do more to stop this preventable death and disease."

Copyright © 2007

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