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On the water front

The global water crisis is reducing much of the world to terrible poverty and could provoke devastating conflicts. Fiona Curtin outlines the problems and suggests that water can be a catalyst for peace, not war

This year is the International Year of Fresh Water and its most significant week is just days away.

The Third World Water Forum is being held from this Sunday, March 16 until March 23 in Japan. On March 20 and 21, Green Cross International and UNESCO will co-chair a two day conference, within the framework of the forum, entitled Water for Peace. It will attempt to inspire peace in the sharing of water resources around the world.

The highlight of the forum will be World Water Dayon March 22 and the theme is Water for the Future. The day will call on all global citizens to observe sustainable approaches to water use for the benefit of future generations.

Sufficient, clean and affordable drinking water is an unobtainable luxury for 1.5 billion people around the world. And more than 2.5 billion live without basic sanitation. These are shocking and shameful statistics which seem to come from another age. It is almost impossible for people in the "first" world to fathom that more than one third of our fellow men, women and children, including half the population of Asia, lack these most basic facilities.

Water-borne diseases in developing countries are responsible for 80 per cent of the illness and death statistics. There are almost 250 million new cases of water-borne diseases each year, resulting in the deaths of about 12 million people; 10,000 people die each day - a child every eight seconds - from waterborne or sanitation-related diseases, making these the world's biggest killers.

If these problems are not solved, the potential for societal breakdown and conflict over water supply will continue to rise. The 1980s were declared the Decade for Water, but while billions of pounds were spent on water projects, poor management and lack of insight into the roots of the problem resulted in abject failure. The world cannot afford another such failure.

Achieving "water for peace" and "peace for water" - the two sides to the water security challenge - is essential if we are to overcome crucial environmental and security challenges. "Water for peace" is about sharing and protecting hundreds of trans-boundary rivers and aquifers, the catchments of which cover more than 40 per cent of the earth's surface and are home to more than half its population. "Peace for water" requires essential water sources and facilities to be protected during times of war and conflict, and rehabilitated as part of emergency post-war relief.

Neither of these challenges is being adequately addressed at the moment, and the global water crisis is reducing much of the world to terrible poverty as well as choking our precious rivers and wetlands.

The vital statistics

This year has been declared by the United Nations to be the International Year of Freshwater, and the Third World Water Forum is meeting in Kyoto, Japan, next week to try to find a clear path out of the crisis. Just as water defies political boundaries and classification, the crisis also is beyond the scope of any individual country or sector and cannot be dealt with in isolation.

In 2000, the Millennium Declaration of the United Nations declared its commitment to meeting seven millennium development goals by 2015, one of which was: "To reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water." The World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 went a significant step further and recognised the equally important human need for sanitation, by agreeing to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water and the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation. The challenge of achieving these goals is daunting: every day, until 2015, drinking water and sanitation services need to be made available to several hundred thousand more people.

About 80 countries had experienced serious water shortages by the mid 1990s, affecting about 40 per cent of the world's population. West Asia faces the severest threat, with more than 90 per cent of the population in the region living under severe water stress (this occurs when water consumption exceeds 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources). A huge disaster is waiting to happen, with many major cities such as New Delhi and Beijing living on borrowed time as they irreversibly deplete their underground water sources.

In 1995, 29 countries, with populations totalling 436 million, experienced water stress or scarcity. By 2025, about 48 countries will do so and the number of people adversely affected will exceed 1.4 billion, the majority in the least developed countries. Global water use is expected to rise by 40 per cent by 2020; 70-80 per cent is required for irrigation, less than 20 per cent for industry and a mere six per cent for essential domestic consumption.

Improved water management has already brought enormous benefits to people in developing countries. Over the past 20 years, more than 2.4 billion people have gained access to water supply and 600 million to sanitation.

Drinking water provision has increased globally from 77 to 82 per cent of population since 1990, but Africa still lags sadly behind at 60 per cent.

The statistics show that governance is as important as rainfall to the provision of water.

Poor water management is a major cause of poverty in the developing world, robbing people of health, dignity and opportunities. The average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water is 6km. The weight of water they carry on their heads is 20kg - the average airline baggage allowance. Lack of sanitation is a prime reason for girls not attending school. The average person in the developing world uses 10 litres of water a day. The average person in the UK uses 135 litres of water every day, and many of us use - and waste - far more.

At least 300 million Africans (40 per cent) do not have access to basic sanitation and hygiene, an increase of 70 million since 1990. Those without access are the poorest and most vulnerable, and the problem is particularly severe in remote rural and rapidly growing urban areas. In developing countries, an estimated 90 per cent of waste water is discharged without treatment into rivers and streams.

Only by better management of rivers and the land that drain into them, can sustainable development and poverty alleviation be achieved. The loftiest, most well-meaning goals for water access and sanitation will remain insignificant if the need for investment in the health of rivers continues to be ignored.

Key to the future

Conserving freshwater habitats is undoubtedly one of the most efficient and cost-effective means of guaranteeing that safe water will be available in future years. If we act now to protect these resources we can help avert a global catastrophe.

However, ecosystems such as lakes, rivers and marshes are currently disappearing or being altered at an alarming rate. Some countries have already destroyed 50-80 per cent of their natural wetlands. In just a few decades, the populations of many freshwater-dependent species have fallen to critical levels. Healthy freshwater ecosystems greatly enhance food security. In Africa, more than 20 per cent of the population's protein comes from freshwater fisheries.

Effective management of wetlands is an investment in people and wildlife.

Between 300 and 400 million people live close to - and depend on - wetlands. These complex habitats vary greatly in size and character, from tiny village ponds to desert oases and the largest inland delta in the world, the glittering Okavango Delta in Botswana, which is nearly twice the size of Switzerland. Wetlands act as highly efficient sewage treatment works, absorbing chemicals and filtering pollutants and sediments.

A new human right

In November 2002, the United Nations explicitly announced, for the first time, that: "Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of all other human rights."

It seems extraordinary that while the right to food, shelter and health were enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights after the Second World War, it has taken a further 50 years - and a global campaign - to bestow the same value on water. Making water a human right puts an obligation on governments to progressively extend access to sufficient, affordable, accessible and safe water supplies and to safe sanitation services. Where there is a specific barrier in place to access water, such as in urban areas where access is refused to poor people on the grounds that they live in illegal settlements, governments now have a legal responsibility to ensure access.

The announcement will certainly not instantly result in universal access to water, but the adoption of the right by member governments of the UN is encouraging. It is important now to raise awareness of the new right among those to whom it matters most: the 1.2 billion people in the world without safe water.

Perhaps the most important message is that the world is now looking at water in a new way - not as a resource to be exploited, dammed, piped and channelled for our convenience, but as a natural asset to be cherished and valued, and an issue intricately linked with human society, culture and history.

Fiona Curtin is programme manager for Green Cross International, a non-government organisation founded in 1993 to prevent and resolve conflicts arising from environmental degradation, mismanagement and injustice, and address the environmental consequences of wars

Water and power

Water can confer power: political power, military power and hydropower. The position of a state in a river basin can determine its power in the region.

In the case of the Tigris-Euphrates, Turkey is the upstream state and can control the volume and schedule of water flowing across its borders into Syria and on to Iraq. There is a long history of tension along this river basin. In 1975, Syria and Iraq came to the brink of war over the completion of Syria's Tabqa dam, until Saudi Arabia and the USSR negotiated a promise from Turkey to release water for downstream states.

In 1990, Syria and Iraq were united in objecting to Turkey's filling of the giant Ataturk dam. The Gulf War left the situation unresolved, apart from a twist when, despite allowing itself to be used as a base for air attacks, Turkey refused a NATO request to cut off Iraq's water.

But riparian position is not always a determinant of power. In the Nile basin, Egypt is in the worst position hydropolitically, but through the millennia it has been the regional power from an economic, political and military perspective. The Nile, "giver of life", is fundamental to Egypt's food production, tourist industry and national identity. But its source is the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia, which could develop water infrastructure upstream and destroy the foundation for Egypt's power. In 1979, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat stated that "the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water." The 10 states of the Nile basin - five of them among the world's 10 poorest nations - are currently engaged in an unprecedented effort to reach an agreement on sharing the river's resources.

The Volta river basin is one of the poorest regions of Africa. It is shared by six West African states (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Benin, Togo and Mali), but more than 90 per cent of the area is located in Burkina Faso (where the three main rivers of the basin - the Red, Black and White Voltas - have their source) and Ghana. With few other natural resources available, agriculture is the backbone of these societies. Agricultural progress in Burkina Faso depends on the development of surface water resources. Such programmes will impact on the availability of water downstream, in particular at the site of the Akosombo dam, on which Ghana depends for almost all of its energy supply. Low water levels in the dam in 1998 caused a major energy crisis in Ghana, which blamed water development in Burkina Faso, although it may have been caused by variability in rainfall.

The construction of the dam in the early 1960s was Ghana's greatest ever undertaking, creating Lake Volta, one of the world's largest artificial lakes. The project caused enormous environmental and social problems, many of which remain unresolved, including an explosion of waterborne diseases throughout the basin and restrictions to navigation. The dam was financed by Britain and the USA in a bid to keep newly independent Ghana on their side during the Cold War.

There is poor communication and little co-operation between the two countries, not least because of a colonial legacy which leaves one speaking French and the other English. Ghana is planning another controversial dam project at Bui, while land-locked Burkina Faso looks to the Volta rivers as a source of development potential; no time should be lost in encouraging dialogue and co-ordination between the two.

Shared water: divided peoples

History shows that we have a choice: to co-operate over water and respect its natural rhythms, or to try to dominate it at the expense of neighbouring states, the environment and future generations. Unfortunately, the latter option has been favoured for much of the past century, leading to water becoming more synonymous with the threat of war and the scourge of poverty than peace. Research has shown three trends related to water conflicts:

* conflicts increase in intensity the smaller the scale;

* neighbouring states that fight about other things may also fight about water;

* the vital nature of water can bring even the staunchest enemies together to secure its supply.

Evidence of the last theory can be found in the Indus basin, shared by India and Pakistan. These two states have gone to war and engaged in armed conflicts several times since achieving independence in 1947, but never over water. Their agreement over water resources - still eluding the territorial dispute - is particularly commendable in this region where millions are without an adequate supply and water shortages are a major factor in economic stagnation. This is a region where water is seen as sacred, making the fact that its allocation has been relatively peacefully resolved all the more significant. It may have taken 12 years to negotiate the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, but it has stood the test of time.

The Middle East is often cited as the region most likely to erupt into "water war". However, while water remains a major source of contention and inequality between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the harsh facts of water scarcity and natural reality of the cross-border rivers and aquifers, have meant that even in the darkest days of conflict the need to share water has been respected. Water is so important to the region that it was one of the key issues in the final negotiations of the Israeli-Palestine peace process, now sadly abandoned.

The region has major, urgent water problems to contend with, and there are no unilateral solutions to a trans-boundary water crisis. Violence has put an end to the desperately needed plans to recognise water rights and improve domestic supply in the Palestinian territories, where people live on 85m3 per year as compared with the (already low) 447m3 per year available to Israelis. Twenty-five per cent of people in the West Bank are without running water.

Fortunately, Jordan and Israel continue to have constructive discussions about the Jordan basin, and are planning a major joint initiative to increase water supply and reverse the disappearance of the Dead Sea by means of a desalination and a pipeline from the Mediterranean. This is a good step, but solving the water crisis in the region will require all parties - Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon - to agree to an integrated management plan and package of co-operative solutions.

Meanwhile, as conflict continues at the heart of the Jordan basin, achieving the goal of co-operation seems ever further away.

Saving the wonderful world of water

Not much can compare to the beauty of a pristine waterfall, river or marshland. But in recent decades countless such visions have been erased from the planet for ever. Dams have drowned some of the world's greatest waterfalls, huge areas of wetlands have been drained, and rivers have been dredged, canalised and clogged with waste. One of the most spectacular natural disasters has been the shrinking of the Aral Sea, directly as a result of a Soviet decision to divert the Syrdaria and Amudaria rivers to irrigate cotton plantations. The sea is now half its size, creating an environmental and humanitarian crisis that defies any solution and requires close co-operation between five newly independent Central Asian republics.

This is a worst-case scenario, standing as a lesson to other regions where warning signs are being ignored.

For some regions, it is already too late. Europe's rivers are in a dire condition, reflected by the depletion of fisheries, the disappearance of salmon, and the fact that Europe now has only one remaining natural river system untouched by dams (the Tornealvan River shared by Sweden and Finland). Even so, there is much that can be done. The 17 states that share the Danube basin are engaged in impressive co-operative efforts, with the help of the EU and other international bodies, to save their river and the Black Sea into which it flows.

The Okavango delta, where the river is swallowed up by the Kalahari desert in a glorious sparkling wetland, is undoubtedly one of the jewels of the natural world. However, the river is the only perennial source of surface water for two growing countries, Namibia and Botswana, and must play a role in the rehabilitation and development of Angola, recently emerging from decades of bloody civil war. A balance has to be achieved between preserving the delta and providing for the people, not easy when conflicting state interests come into play, and the growing revenue from international tourism in the delta is currently benefiting only one of the states - Botswana, where the delta lies. There is a need to share the benefits as well as the burdens and responsibilities of preserving the beauty of the Okavango.

The way forward

There is potential for violence in the global water crisis. Water-related conflicts can fester between ethnic groups, or between neighbouring farmers or industrialists, and can cause loss of trust between people and their government. When sovereign states are involved, the people and the watercourse itself will suffer the consequences.

It is essential that water becomes an avenue for peace and sustainable development. An alliance between non-governmental organisations, lawyers, technicians and people campaigning on the ground, is striving to raise the status of water on political agendas. International laws that protect and ensure co-operation over trans-boundary waters need to be strengthened and ratified, and necessary funding must be made available to support negotiations in the developing world.

Equally crucial is the need for people everywhere to realise the extent of the global water crisis, and the risks that it poses to security and health, and demand that their governments address these issues.

In June 2003, the most powerful nations in the world will discuss water as one of the most important items on the agenda at the G8 summit. This is testament to the growing realisation that water is intricately linked to security and economic development. Without water, people have nothing.

The major waterways

The Tigris-Euphrates, the Amazon, the Congo, the Nile, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Rhine, the Volga, even the Thames, have been the cradles and the highways of human civilisation and development. These - and the hundreds of other major river systems across the world - have inspired and made possible the main leaps forward in our cultural and economic growth: from irrigation to the growth of cities in all their diversity; transport, trade and inter-cultural exchanges; the perpetuation of myriad legends and myths stemming from floods, droughts and even rivers running red; and the power behind the Industrial Revolution. Rivers have also been agents for the spread of disease, movement of troops, and - in collaboration with the high seas - allowed the eager fingers of empires and colonisation to reach deep into the continents


Green Cross International's official

A complex and detailed site providing everything you need to know about the forum

Impressive World Water Day 2003 websites

An excellent overview of the world water crisis, featuring an interactive map. isdefault.stm

Gives a good overview of the scale of the problem in Africa. Specific to World Water Day 2001 but the information is still relevant.


Water Partner's International's website. Provides a good overview of the world water crisis and suggests possible solutions. A bit US-centric but worth a look.

An overview from the UN University about the water crisis, plus links to project websites.


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