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Time Running Out Faster Than Water, Experts Warn

Thalif Deen

A man fills water containers in a slum area in Manila, Philippines. Increasing water pollution and dwindling water quality around the globe will be the main focus as around 2,500 experts begin gathering in Stockholm for the 20th edition of the World Water Week.(AFP/Noel Celis)

STOCKHOLM  - A major week-long international water conference opened in the
Swedish capital Monday with an ominous warning: time is
running out faster than fresh water.

If the "massive and complex challenges" facing one of the
world's most finite natural resources are not resolved soon,
the future looks grimly devastating: scarcities, pollution,
droughts, floods, desertification and diseases.

Gunilla Carlsson, the Swedish minister for international
development cooperation, described the recent floods in
Pakistan as one of the major natural disasters facing that

"We are deeply concerned about the situation in Pakistan,"
she said, of a country where over 60 years of infrastructure
development has been literally washed away in a water-
related calamity in the flood-affected regions.

She said the Swedish government has so far responded with 20
million dollars in assistance to Pakistan.

Carlsson said the most affected - as in most natural
disasters - were the poor and the most vulnerable in
society. At last count, over 1,700 have died while more than
1.2 million homes and schools have been destroyed by the
floods, according to reports from Pakistan.

Carlsson said there could be more deaths from water-borne
diseases, even as Pakistan struggles to cope with the

Speaking at the opening ceremony in a city surrounded by
water, Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm
International Water Institute (SIWI), warned: "Bad water
kills more people than HIV, malaria and wars together,
affecting the lives of families and the economic development
of many countries around the world."

"We are also increasingly seeing that ecosystems and their
services are being degraded by pollution, which will affect
all functions of society," he added.

The conference, attended by more than 2,500 key water
experts, will focus on the theme: "Responding to Global
Changes: The Water Quality Challenge."

This is the 20th consecutive year that SIWI is hosting its
'World Water Week' in a city described as Europe's "first
green capital".

This year, Berntell said, weather patterns have been
increasingly erratic. "We cannot say that any of these
individual events are effects of climate change, but the
patterns coincide with the scenarios that scientists have
predicted: snowfall, floods and severe droughts," he noted.

He regretted that many representatives from Pakistan
couldn't attend the conference.

"We share the frustration and despair of all those affected,
and we share the concern with many over the fact that our
leaders did not resume their responsibilities (at the last
failed Climate Change conference) in Copenhagen."


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In international discussions on water, there is a tendency
to focus on the availability of water, but not quality.

"Poor water quality affects human lives and livelihoods and
the function of ecosystems in the same way as lack of
water," Berntell said.

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, he said,
freshwater ecosystems have degraded more than any other
ecosystem, including tropical rainforests.

Several studies indicate that more than 40 percent of fish
species and amphibians are threatened with extinction.

Polluted freshwater ends up in the oceans, causing serious
damage to many coastal areas and fisheries, thereby
constituting a major challenge to ocean and coastal resource

Addressing the gathering, Dr Rita Colwell, the 2010
Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, said that shortcomings in
addressing the water quality issue, coupled with climate
changes, could lead to disastrous outbreaks of water-borne
diseases such as cholera.

This, in turn, is bound to affect economic and national

But Carlsson, the Swedish minister, also touted some of the
success stories. She said a great deal has happened since
World Water Week was launched 20 years ago.

For example, almost two billion more people have access to
safe drinking water compared with 20 years ago, and around
1.5 billion more people have access to sanitation.

The provision of safe water has actually outperformed global
population growth and given more than eight million people,
roughly the population of Sweden, access to safe water every
month for 20 years, said Carlsson.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka-based International Water
Management Institute (IWMI) pointedly says that "running out
of water is running out of time".

"We are headed for a water crisis," it warns in a new
publication authored by Colin Chartres and Samyuktha Varma,
and titled 'Out of Water' released here.

As the global population is forecast to reach nine billion
by 2050, water is becoming scarcer around the world as
expanding cities, developing countries and new biofuel crops
suck water in ever-greater amounts from the world's rivers
and lakes, say the authors.

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