Water shortages will leave world in dire straits By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
More than half of humanity will be living with water shortages, depleted fisheries and polluted coastlines within 50 years because of a worldwide water crisis, warns a United Nations report out Monday.
Waste and inadequate management of water are the main culprits behind growing problems, particularly in poverty-ridden regions, says the study, the most comprehensive of its kind. The United Nations Environment Programme, working with more than 200 water resource experts worldwide, produced the report.
"Tens of millions of people don't have access to safe water. It is indeed a crisis," says Halifa Drammeh, who coordinates UNEP's water policies. The wide-ranging report, part of the UN's designation of 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, also documents problems such as steep drops in the size of Asia's Aral Sea, Africa's Lake Chad and Iraq's Marshlands; the deterioration of coral reefs; and the rise of coastal waters because of climate changes. Some developing nations could face water shortages, crop failures and conflict over shrinking lakes and rivers if nothing is done to prevent wasteful irrigation and slow evaporation from reservoirs, and drinking-water systems are not repaired.
Based on data from NASA, the World Health Organization and other agencies, the report finds:
- Severe water shortages affecting at least 400 million people today will affect 4 billion people by 2050. Southwestern states such as Arizona will face other severe freshwater shortages by 2025.
- Adequate sanitation facilities are lacking for 2.4 billion people, about 40% of humankind.
- Half of all coastal regions, where 1 billion people live, have degraded through overdevelopment or pollution.
"The basic problem is poverty, not water," says water resources economist Chuck Howe of the University of Colorado in Boulder. About 90% of the severe problems are in developing nations, he says, where solutions to wasting water lie in better irrigation and water supply practices.
In developed nations such as Japan, the USA and in Europe, most water shortfalls arise from politically popular but inefficient subsidies and protections of agriculture, which accounts for 85% of freshwater consumption worldwide.
Along with drinking-water concerns, the report looks at global problems of oceans and seas:
- Coral reefs, mangrove forests and sea grass beds, important grounds for young fish and for environmental needs, face threats from overfishing, development and pollution.
- Oxygen-depleted seas, caused by industrial and agricultural runoff, could lead to fishery collapses and "dead zones" in such places as the Gulf of Mexico.
- Wild-fish catches are leveling off worldwide. With 75% of fish stocks fully exploited, fleets have turned to fish lower on ocean food chains. Ecologists worry that entire fisheries will collapse as these "junk fish" are used up. Increased demand for fish is being made up through aquaculture, which brings other environmental concerns.
Drammeh hopes the report helps mobilize support for international organizations brokering water and fishery agreements that encourage better water management among nations. Developing regions don't need more dam-building projects, he says, but need more people trained to manage water systems.