March 22 marks the
annual observance of U.N. World Water Day and the beginning
of a U.N.-mandated decade of action called "Water for
Life." They are a call to U.N. agencies and other groups
to focus their efforts on reversing the plight of the billions
of people who lack access to safe water and sanitation to
protect their heath. Organizers say the first water decade
in the 1980s brought water to more than one billion people
and sanitation to almost 770 million. But as VOA's David
McAlary reports from Washington, the goal of sufficient
safe water remains elusive as world population grows:
Earth may be unique in the universe
for its abundance of water, amounting to 70 percent of its
surface. But the image recalls the old sailor's lament,
"Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,"
for the vast majority of it is salty and unfit for consumption.
"It is really remarkable that on
the blue planet, on a planet as abundant with water as the
one on which we find ourselves, only three percent of the
water resources on the planet are fresh water."
Erik Peterson of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington points out that
as small an amount as three percent is, only a tiny fraction
of that percentage is available to us for daily use. Most
of the world's fresh water is either frozen, locked underground
or in swamps, leaving less than a drop in every liter for
our needs. Half of that is already in use for agriculture,
industry, and cities and towns.
But about one-sixth of humanity, one
billion people, do not have safe water and 2.5 billion are
without sanitation. U.N. statistics show that nearly half
of all people in the developing world suffer diseases like
cholera and diarrhea as a direct result. As population grows,
Mr. Peterson says more will be exposed.
"We believe that these problems,
as daunting as they are, are going to become all the more
daunting in the future," he said. "By current
estimates from the United Nations, we believe that by the
year 2025, some three billion people across the world could
face water shortages, in some cases life threatening water
Despite the minuscule amount of available
fresh water, experts say there is enough to meet human needs.
The real problem is that the infrastructure to deliver it,
such as sewage treatment plants and pipes, is lacking in
At the World Bank in Washington, Claudia
Sadoff makes the distinction between physical scarcity and
"That is the issue, not so much
of the resource not existing, but the resource being economically
inaccessible," she said. "Forty-five percent of
the world is essentially uncovered for water supply and
The outcome is that much labor that
could otherwise be economically productive in poor countries
is spent toting water long distances on foot from rivers
Development and stability are affected
as nations and regions within nations compete for this scarce
India and Pakistan, for example, are
seeking World Bank mediation over India's desire to build
a dam that Pakistan complains will reduce the water it gets
from a river in Kashmir. Iran is building a huge dike that
could divert some water it shares with Iraq.
Erik Peterson says water is a transboundary
issue in many places.
"Two-hundred-sixty water basins
across the planet are shared by two or more countries. Thirteen
are shared by five or more countries," he said. "How
successfully these countries deal with this critically short
resource will, in effect, determine whether we have instability
and conflict or whether we can define new pathways of cooperation
going into the future."
In 2000, U.N. members set a goal of
reducing the percentage of people lacking clean water and
sanitation by half as one of several so-called Millennium
Development Goals to be met by 2015.
But the Center for Strategic and International
Studies says the effort is underfunded and will require
an extra $15 to $30 billion in addition to the $30 billion
already invested each year in development.
Experts say demand for water must be
reduced as population increases.
For Massachusetts of Institute of Technology
engineer Susan Murcott, part of the answer is new technologies
to increase water efficiency. She favors simple, inexpensive
ones for poor countries, such as portable solar evaporation
stills to remove salt from water or drip lines connected
to soil moisture sensors to release water sporadically onto
farm fields as needed rather than flooding them.
Ms. Murcott has developed a filter of
brick chips, rusty nails, sand, and gravel in a tub to eliminate
arsenic and other contaminants from water.
"There may be a movement maybe
not away from centralized drinking water and wastewater
treatment plants," she noted, "but certainly an
additional component of decentralized solutions that we
are going to be seeing because water supply for so many
people around the world is coming to people from decentralized
To this end, the World Health
Organization is collaborating with more than 200 governmental
and non-governmental organizations, corporations, and universities
in an international network to promote research into safe,
affordable household water treatment, and ways to make it
available to every person who needs it.
VOA - Washington