Another World Water Day has come
and gone, but there is no end in sight for the world’s water
crisis. All other problems facing the world seem insignificant
in the light of the acute water crisis. In fact, several
conflicts raging round the world today have arisen due to
disputes over water resources. Darfur is a classic example.
This is indeed why the UN is taking this issue very
“A shortage of water resources could spell increased
conflicts in the future,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says.
“Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate
change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many
more conflicts lie just over the horizon.”
This is a rather bleak picture but one which is becoming
increasingly true. It is a vicious cycle from which a way out
seems to be impossible: more people will have to share the
existing water resources. The population of the world will
exceed nine billion by 2050.
Although our planet is 75 per cent water, less than three per
cent of it is in the form of accessible freshwater. Only a very
few countries can afford to build desalination plants for
seawater, leaving the others to seek freshwater resources.
In the words of Anders Berntell, Executive Director of the
Stockholm International Water Institute, the lack of safe
drinking water for over one billion people worldwide, and the
lack of safe sanitation for over 2.5 billion, “is an acute and
devastating humanitarian crisis.”
Moreover, even the available resources in many countries,
such as rivers, are polluted to the extent that their water is
unfit for human consumption. It is thus not difficult to
comprehend why nearly 50 per cent of the hospital beds in the
world are occupied by those suffering from water-borne diseases.
It is not an issue of clean water alone. The lack of basic
sanitation facilities is a major issue in the Third World. The
U.N.’s declaration of 2008 as the International Year of
Sanitation has catalysed increased action in this regard. As
many water experts point out, this is a crisis of management,
not a water crisis per se.
A chronic lack of funding and inadequate understanding of the
need for sanitation and good hygiene at the local level have
been cited as the main causes. Only a fraction of the worldwide
military costs will suffice to solve water-related problems in
Another challenge is that the world’s rainfall and water
distribution patterns are changing thanks to climate change. So
far, no country has taken this threat seriously.
Ensuring access to drinking water is only the tip of the
iceberg. Water is essential for agriculture but water resources
are increasingly being denied to farmers. The world is already
facing a food crisis and a wide-scale shortage of agricultural
water leading to a food shortage could only spell a disaster for
many impoverished nations. Several countries have proposed
urgent action to prevent such a situation.
Britain, for instance, has proposed an annual global
monitoring report; one high-level global ministerial meeting on
water; at country level, one national plan for water and
sanitation; one coordinating body; and activities of U.N.
agencies on water and sanitation to be coordinated by one lead
body under the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and its country
plan. This seems to be an ideal starting point for more concrete
action on the water crisis.
On one hand we see the Third World struggling without
adequate water resources. On the other, we see the wasteful use
of bottled water. In the West, bottled water has become a
contentious issue mainly owing to the use of non-biodegradable
More morally-stung people are opting for tap water even at
top restaurants thanks to a high-profile campaign against
bottled water. The world has also woken up to the concept of
In basic terms, it is all about the water ‘contained’ in
products and services which seemingly have no connection with
water. Take a garment for sale - how many litres of water would
have gone into its production process? Prof. John Anthony Allen,
who introduced the concept, has won this year’s Stockholm Water
Prize. Now the race is on to reduce the wastage of water
‘embedded’ in consumer products from food to household
appliances to cars.
The water crisis, in various forms, is threatening to tear
apart the UN’s ambitious Millennium Development Goals challenge
for developing nations. This should be prevented through
collective action by the international community, since today’s
technology is adequate to meet the daunting challenge.