The warning was highlighted at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, (March 16th-22nd 2009), in the 3rd UN World Water Development Report. The report is the most comprehensive study of the state of the world’s fresh water supply to date. Currently there are physical water shortages in North East Africa, the Middle East and areas of Asia. The countries most at risk from severe water shortages will be in Africa and Asia, but it is a global issue. There is an economic water shortage across the Southern hemisphere, and at least 120 million people live in Europe without access to clean water or sanitation.

Water is vital to human survival and livelihood. Fresh water makes up 3% of the world’s water, but less than 1% of that amount is not frozen in the polar ice caps. Half the world is at threat from six main diseases associated with poor sanitation and lack of safe drinking water. Good sanitation systems are equally important to our health and productivity. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that more than 5 million people die annually as a result of waterborne disease.

The report urges greater political awareness of the problem and suggests immediate action to ensure future supply and reduce political instability. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon used his speech on World Water Day to reiterate his warning on the growing threat of water-related crises, saying that “water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.”

A growing problem

The world’s population is growing at a rate of 80 million a year with growth predominantly in urban areas. Increasing life expectancy rates will also create more pressure on the water supply and sanitation infrastructure. The report also predicts that within the next 30-50 years there will be “substantial population displacement” due to the effects of global warming (increased droughts and flooding) in Africa and Asia. In Bangladesh alone, one of the world’s poorest nations it is expected around 20 million people will become ‘environmental refugees’.

As industrialisation and consumption increases in developing nations there will be a greater demand for energy and food. Currently 70% of the world’s water consumption is being used in agriculture. To put the figure into perspective, the amount of water needed to produce 1kg of meat is the same as the amount used in an average domestic household over 10 months. This will inevitably lead to greater competition for water in agriculture, limiting food production in regions with water scarcity, and will result in raising food prices and greater dependence of some countries on imports.

There is evidence that economic growth has been limited due to a lack of water in Australia, China, India, Indonesia and parts of Western USA. International Alert has named 46 countries, including Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Colombia, where water-related crises already are posing a serious threat of violent conflict.

Proposed solutions

Governments need to improve their water sector through better management. Decisions are made on a daily basis which impact water supply and policy makers need to be aware that the many factors affecting supply are integral to any plans for sustainable development. The push by some politicians towards bio-fuels highlights a current issue. It takes 9,100 litres of water for each litre of bio-diesel fuel produced. Although the popularity of bio-fuels is based on an attempt to alleviate environmental damage that is contributing to global warming, it is adding to the equally serious threat of the growing water shortage.

The report calls on greater funding for the monitoring and assessment of water usage, water wastage, and pollution levels on a national level. Further preventative measures can include replacing aging sanitation infrastructure, and building more desalinisation plants to convert sea water into drinkable water. Good water management and the protection of water eco-systems from pollution can ensure the sustainability not only of water supply and good sanitation, but also of their future economic development and security.

As it is, the poorer nations of Africa and Asia will be most affected by the growing water crises. The report calls on developed nations to incorporate more water and sanitation management into their broader development aid strategies in those regions, and not to treat the problems as purely national by taking in environmental refugees from poorer nations as the need arises.

What is being done?

Environmental activists have criticised that the Water Forum ended without any binding agreements being made. However, the summit was not a meeting of world leaders, but of water experts and some ministers. The delegates promised simply to do more to protect the world’s water supply and agreed on the urgency of the crisis as presented in the UN Report. The G8 countries agreed on an action plan in 2003 called the Evian Water Action Plan. The comprehensive plan includes promoting good governance of water and sanitation, using all available financial resources to implement projects, strengthening the monitoring and assessment of water supply and utilising the UN to prioritise the issue. At the 2008 G8 summit in Japan they pledged to review this plan in 2009 in light of the report from the Water Forum. Italy has released its plan for the upcoming 2009 G8 Summit being held in La Maddalena this April. They will discuss the Evian Water Action Plan in light of the new report and their prior acknowledgement that of the need to accelerate achievement of internationally recognised goals.