World Faces New Threats of Water Scarcity

STOCKHOLM - The world is on the verge of "a new and more serious era of water scarcity" than ever before, is the ominous warning coming out of an international water conference here.

The physical availability of water is being endangered by a rash of new threats, including climate change, increase in global population and the sudden growth of the water-hungry bioenergy sector.

Addressing the 17th annual World Water Week, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Anders Berntell warned that 1.4 billion people now live in regions where there is a real, physical water scarcity, and an additional 1.1 billion live in regions where there is water stress due to over-consumption.

"Clearly, these figures will increase in the future, due to population growth, intensified agriculture and climate change," he told a meeting of over 2,000 water professionals, technicians, scientists and policy makers.

The annual five-day meeting, to conclude Friday, is described as the world's largest single gathering of water experts, including officials from more than 150 organisations.

"We are not prepared to deal with the implications this has for our planet. There is a security component in this that is not fully understood or addressed internationally yet."

"And I am not talking about water security," he said. "I mean political security."

Berntell blamed both international aid donors and governments for their skewed priorities on development spending -- with water and sanitation getting the least.

He contrasted this with the phenomenal 37 percent increase in military expenditures globally during 1997-2006, reaching close to $1 trillion annually.

"When we look at these figures, I think it is time that we ask ourselves 'Why?'. Why don't governments in developing countries, donor agencies and financiers prioritise water higher? Why are other issues, other sectors higher on the political agenda?" he asked.

In a report released here, the London-based WaterAid has blamed international donors for undermining the development priorities of recipient countries.

"If donors are serious about achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they must balance their investments more evenly across all the essential services: water, sanitation, health and education."

Besides a proposed 50-percent reduction of poverty and hunger by the year 2015, the MDGs, agreed at the 2000 United Nations Millennium Summit, also include universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality and maternal mortality; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

WaterAid has called for "urgent changes to the aid system to ensure that donor policy responds to the needs of the poor and tackles the most critical obstacles to development."

The study, titled "How the aid system is undermining the Millennium Development Goals", says progress in health and education is dependent on access to affordable sanitation and safe water.

"And yet both donors and developing country governments have failed to recognise the interrelationship between health, education, water and sanitation," says WaterAid.

Global aid spending on health and education, the study notes, has nearly doubled since 1990 while the share allocated to water and sanitation has contracted.

There are many possible explanations for the marginalisation of the sector, the study points out. "The sector is certainly more complex than health or education, with responsibility often split across several ministries."

Addressing the meeting Monday, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the vital truth is "if there is no water, there is no life."

Today, more than 1 billion people are said to lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation.

Every day, he said, "we see around 34,000 people die in diseases related to deficient water and sanitation."

"I don't think that anyone on our planet can stand untouched by these facts. The question is: what can we do?"

The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, agreed on an ambitious goal: that by 2015 the number of people without access to drinking water and essential sanitation should be cut in half.

Between 1990 and 2002, there were some positive results. The number of people with access to safe water rose, from 71 percent to 79 percent.

"If this development continues," the Swedish prime minister predicted, "the goal can be achieved when we write 2015."

But the bad news, he said, is that the goals of essential sanitation are lagging far behind.

"If we see to Africa and several countries in Asia, the future is especially dark."

Reinfeldt singled out his own country as having a long tradition of giving priority to water within the framework of its foreign aid budget.

He said Sweden has continued to provide strong support to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) -- three important actors in the international fields of water and sanitation.

He pointed out that Sweden has also given specific support to platforms where the water issue can be discussed and where actors can meet to change points of views or share scientific results.

The World Water Week is one good example, as well as its organiser, the Stockholm International Water Institute.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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