Global water scarcity threatens nearly one billion people

By Environment News Service

“If we fail today to make water an instrument of peace, it might become tomorrow a major source of conflict,” warns UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova in her foreword to the UN World Water Development Report released today at the opening of the World Water Forum in Marseilles. “Freshwater is a core issue for sustainable development – and it is slipping through the cracks.”

An “unprecedented” rise in the demand for food as the population grows, rapid urbanization and climate change are the drivers of increasing global water stress, finds the report, “Managing Water Under Uncertainty and Risk.”

Issued every three years since 2003 at the triennial World Water Forum, the UN World Water Development Report offers an overview of the state of the world’s freshwater resources and aims to provide decision makers with the tools to make sustainable use of water a reality.

“No water users, anywhere in the world, can be guaranteed they will have uninterrupted access to the water supplies they need or want or to the water-derived benefits from key developmental sectors such as agriculture, energy and health,” the report warns.

While UNICEF and the World Health Organization issued a separate report last week showing that the world has achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water in advance of the 2015 deadline, water scarcity is still a big problem for millions of people.

The new World Water Development Report shows that despite projected increases in demand for water, there are still nearly one billion people without such access, and this number is growing in cities.

The world’s urban population is forecast to grow to 6.3 billion people in 2050, from 3.4 billion in 2009, increasing problems of adequate water supply, sanitation and drainage, especially in urban slums already faced with a backlog of unserved populations.

Sanitation infrastructure is not keeping pace with the world’s urban population, and more than 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is neither collected nor treated, according to the report.

“We have much to do before all people have the access to the water and sanitation they need to lead lives of dignity and well-being,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a video message to the World Water Forum.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water withdrawn by the agricultural, municipal, industrial and energy sectors, according to the report, which says, “Responsible agricultural water management will make a major contribution to future global water security.”

The report projects a 70 percent increase in demand for food by the year 2050 when the world population is forecast to be nine billion and warns that this level of demand will lead to a 19 percent surge in agricultural water use.

In response to growing demand, countries have tapped into underground water sources, with water extraction tripling over the past 50 years. In some underground basins, water cannot be replenished and is now at critically low levels.

Climate change will have a growing impact on water resources as it alters rainfall patterns and soil humidity, melts glaciers and causes water-related disasters such as floods and droughts, which impact food production.

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