Because freshwater is fundamental to human existence, one would expect humans to go to great lengths to ensure a sustainable and readily-accessible supply of this critical resource. The unfortunate reality, however, is that humans only seem to appreciate what they have when it is gone.
Sustainable freshwater supplies represent a complex, scientific, technological, economic and political issue that cuts across national, regional and international borders. Thus, it is not too dramatic to suggest that dwindling water supplies in some regions can provide the basis for future armed conflicts between nations.
At first glance, such warnings of water scarcity may seem melodramatic. As seen from space, the Earth is a rich, blue globe, suggesting abundant presence of water. Yet, more than 97 percent of this water is in the salty oceans, leaving only about 2.5 percent as freshwater. If we subtract the freshwater that is not readily available to human use (e.g., glaciers, deep groundwater), we are left with less than one percent of the total volume of water on this planet upon which all life depends.
Even this relatively small amount would be adequate for human uses, except that it is not distributed evenly around the world. In many places, water is not available in sufficient quantities either when or where it is needed by humans. This is abundantly evident in the large belt of desert that extends virtually unbroken from northwest Africa to China, as well as many other arid and semi-arid regions. This brings home one clear point--many people around the world already lack adequate supplies of freshwater, and increasing population growth and associated water needs will only exacerbate this situation.
Water scarcity often invokes dramatic television images of drought victims and dead livestock in parched surroundings. But, even though drought can be terrible in its impacts, it is nevertheless a cyclical natural phenomenon that comes and goes. The far greater threat to meeting human water needs is posed by the ever-increasing and often reckless water consumption by the world's expanding population. Each year, global water consumption rises by two to three percent. Yet, the total supply of the Earth's freshwater remains constant. As a result, rivers and lakes are continuously being polluted and water tables are falling because groundwater is being consumed faster than nature can replenish it.
Anyone who has ever been thirsty knows the quenching and satisfying sensation of drinking a big glass of cool, clean water. With this vision, one must characterize freshwater as precious, finite and irreplaceable. It is precious because of its fundamental role
(i) in meeting our human survival needs, and
(ii) as the most basic commodity of economic development. It is finite because we only have a fixed quantity of water on Earth, and we cannot create more of it. Rather, we can only use and degrade it, discharge it, extract and treat it when we need it again, in a continuing cycle of human use and reuse; one that is growing increasingly expensive to maintain as we find ever more ways to pollute and otherwise abuse our available water resources. Finally, it is irreplaceable in that there is virtually no substitute for it in our many human uses.
It is estimated that one-third of the world's population will suffer from chronic water shortages by the year 2025, due to
(i) increasing freshwater demands by growing populations,
(ii) decreased quality of existing water resources because of pollution, and
(iii) accelerating requirements of expanding industries and agriculture.
Water shortages already exist in Africa, the Middle East and parts of North America, Asia and Europe. Eighty-eight developing countries, containing close to half of the world's population, already experience significant water deficits, as well as water-related constraints on their development potential.
The associated human and environmental costs are significant. Approximately 80-90 percent of all diseases, and more than one-third of all deaths in developing countries are believed to be related to contaminated water. And absolute scarcity is not the only water constraint. Pollution of existing water resources also limits the range of possible human uses, without necessitating expensive, and often time-consuming treatment, thereby constituting a water "scarcity" of a different type, but with similar consequences.
Nature also has its water needs. Both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems typically need a minimum inflow of water to maintain their internal structure and function. Yet, when we allocate our available water resources among competing use, we seldom consider the water needs of natural ecosystems, many of which are vital for our own existence.
Given its fundamental importance to our continuing existence and well-being, it is ironic that we continue to treat our freshwater resources as a cheap, abundant, and perpetually- available resource. We have unwisely accorded water issues a low priority on our national and international political arenas. In fact, our efforts to locate and refine oil and precious metals typically far exceed our efforts directed to ensuring sustainable freshwater supplies.
To attempt to address this worsening situation, Agenda 21 - the Global Plan of Action that resulted from the 1992 Earth Summit - called for integrated national and international action for
(i) the protection of water resources from depletion and pollution,
(ii) the efficient and equitable allocation of water,
(iii) the strengthening of institutions and laws, and
(iv)the enhancement of public participation and access to sanitary services.
Recognizing the serious nature of the global water issue, UNEP has worked with Governments, its parter UN agencies and international and non-governmental organizations in developing and initiating a number of major programmes aimed at alleviating the looming water crisis. The programmes include the following:
As Chair of the Water Working Group of the UN System-wide Special Initiative on Africa, UNEP is working with other UN agencies to implement water objectives regarding sustainable water use, drinking water and sanitation, food security and develop accurate knowledge bases on water resources. Recognizing that a high proportion of the population in cities, urban centres and rural areas in developing countries get far less than their "fair share" of available water, UNEP also is working to implement an equity- led strategy for sustainable water management and use, meant to ensure everyone and every sector does get their fair share of this vital resource.
UNEP's strategic approach to sustainable management and use of water resources ("Environmentally-Sound Management of Inland Waters", EMINWA) addresses such complex, interrelated factors as institutions, law, economics, cultural norms, domestic, agricultural and industrial water supplies and needs, and water-related topics in an integrated and holistic manner, and on the scale of the drainage-basin (the basic hydrologic management unit). In cooperation with Governments, UNEP seeks to strike a balance between water's role as a resource for human welfare and economic development on one hand, and its environmental value on the other hand.
As Secretariat for the Global Programme of Action for Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, and recognizing the fundamental hydrologic linkages between the quality of coastal and marine waters and their associated freshwater drainage basins, UNEP's integrated approach also allows it to address sustainable management and use of freshwater and coastal resources in a single water management continuum, in contrast to the traditional sectoral approach. This effort is being done in cooperation with Governments, UN agencies, and international and non-governmental organizations.
UNEP's GEMS/Water Programme, in cooperation with other UN agencies and regional collaborating centres, continues to address water quality monitoring and assessment projects at the global, regional and sub- regional level, including
(i) freshwater pollution issues,
(ii) global pollution and its movement via rivers to the oceans; and
(iii) strengthening of national water quality monitoring activities in developing countries.
The goal is to develop reliable information bases both for identifying significant water issues and for making scientifically-sound policy and management decisions.
UNEP also works to develop and assess innovative methods and techniques, including practical economic tools to allow Governments to foster efficient and effective use of available water resources. UNEP has also compiled and analyzed alternative regional technologies for augmenting freshwater resources on a regional basis in developing countries, and in countries with economies in transition.
UNEP and its partner UN agencies are acutely aware of the existing global, regional and sub-regional problems of scarce or misused water resources, and continue to assist Governments to address these problems. The current situation of unsustainable human water use cannot continue indefinitely without globally and regionally-disastrous results. If we foolishly choose to continue to ignore these problems, we can rest assured that they will not ignore us. Indeed, in the absence of human efforts to address the problems, nature itself will eventually take care of it for us. Unfortunately, nature can also be a cruel taskmaster, and we may well not be pleased with the results as they relate to our continued survival and well-being!
Photos by: Åke Bjørke
For more information:
Mr. Walter Rast
Deputy Director, Water
P.O. Box 30552
UNEP Information Note. For information only. Not an official document.
22 MARCH, WORLD WATER DAY 1997
Statement by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director,
United Nations Environment Programme
THIRSTY HUMANS AND WATER SCARCITY
"All the water on Earth is all the water there is...."
Information and Media Officer
P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya Tel: 254-2-62-3084,
UNEP Information Note 1997/8