STOCKHOLM -- The international community is running the risk of losing the battle for water and sanitation in many cities around the world.
"But it is a battle we cannot afford to lose," warns Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
Speaking at the opening of a week-long annual international water conference in the Swedish capital Monday, Berntell said the world’s urban water landscape has been hit by a paradox - as countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America are devastated by two extreme weather conditions: floods and droughts.
Last year Pakistan had its worst flood in recorded history claiming the lives of more than 2,000 and leaving 11 million people homeless.
Floods in Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and France, called ‘the worst in 200 years’ in France, also caused deadly destruction to lives and property.
At the same time, the current drought in the Horn of Africa affecting Ethiopia and Somalia - the worst Somalia has seen in 60 years - has triggered a famine killing over 30,000 children.
The common denominator in all these tragedies is water.
Addressing over 2,500 delegates, described as a new record attendance at this year’s 21st annual water conference, Berntell said climate change has brought new challenges. "As floods and extreme weather events become increasingly common, it becomes clear that too much water can be just as dangerous as too little."
The theme of this year’s conference is: ‘Responding to Global Changes: Water in an Urbanizing World’.
Gunilla Carlsson, the Swedish minister for international development cooperation, told delegates that increased access to clean water supplies and sanitation is an important catalytic force for development. "The costs of not acting far exceeds the costs of well-functioning, sustainable water resource management," she said.
Carlsson also said the upcoming Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil next June should stress the efficient use of, and equitable access to, water and sanitation in urban areas.
But one of the biggest threats on global water supplies appear to be exploding mega cities where rising populations are outpacing scarce water resources.
Focusing on the rapid urbanization currently underway, Berntell pointed out that more than half of humanity now lives in cities, and the estimate is that the urban population will increase by more than 70 million persons each year in the near future. Urban population will double between 2000 and 2030.
One out of four city residents, 794 million people in total, lives without access to adequate sanitation facilities, and 141 million urban dwellers do not have access to safe drinking water, Berntell said. "And more than 800 million people live in slums today, and we all know that the situation in these urban areas to often leads to water related diseases such as diarrhea, malaria and cholera epidemics, having devastating effects on the livelihood of families but also severe effects on the economies of their countries."
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Berntell said cities expand, but the available volume of water does not. As the world’s urban areas keep on growing, the water sources may not suffice.
New sources are often difficult and expensive to develop. Cities are drawing water from increasingly distant areas, thereby competing for water with the surrounding countryside, he noted.
Globally, there is an increasing need to adapt existing water infrastructure so that they can meet these challenges. But in general, investments in water infrastructure have not kept up with the pace of urbanization.
Water tends to be undervalued, and in many parts of the world weak governance and financially unviable operations threaten water security.
But, all is not bad news, Berntell said.
With urbanization come new opportunities for more efficient water management. The solution lies in the nature of urban areas: They are high in population density, hubs for economic growth and incubators for creativity.
According to some estimates, 70 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) is generated in cities.
Cities give great economies of scale and provide excellent opportunities for effective infrastructure development, for increased re-use of water and waste, and for more efficient use of water and energy.
However, urban water management strategies cannot be limited to the city itself. In order for the solutions to be sustainable, cities need to plan with the whole basin in mind so as not to increase tensions between rural and urban areas and to avoid downstream pollution and environmental degradation.
And there are many good examples out there. Cities, that in spite of enormous challenges, have made fantastic efforts to serve their inhabitants.
Last year, here in Stockholm, we celebrated Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, which is performing better than most other cities internationally. Beijing, Manila, Sao Paolo, and London, are other examples where significant improvements can be seen.
But the list could be longer, Berntell declared.
Still, 2011 is also a year when "we are looking forward to next year’s U.N. Conference on Sustainable development, in Rio."
By 2030 in a business as usual scenario, humanity’s demand for water is predicted to outstrip supply by as much as 40 percent - which would place water, energy and food security at risk, hamper economic development, lead to social and geopolitical tensions and cause irreparable environmental damage in mature and developing economies alike, Berntell warned.