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GENEVA, Oct 19 2010 (IPS) - In recent years, climate change seems to have elbowed out other environmental issues to become the number one global problem. But the alarming problems of water -increasing scarcity, lack of access to drinking water, and sanitation, pollution, flooding- are equally important and an even more immediate threat.

On 28 July, the United Nations General Assembly in a historic decision recognised the right to water and sanitation as a human right.

The extensive floods in Pakistan are also a current reminder of two things: the devastating impact of climate change on rainfall and the quantities of water flows; and the importance of properly managing water drainage, especially in the major rivers and waterways.

The increasing shortage of water in many countries has become a crisis. A decade ago, it was predicted that a third of the world’s population would be facing water scarcity by 2025. But this threshold has already been reached. Two billion people live in countries that are water-stressed and by 2025, two-thirds of the world population may suffer water stress unless current trends alter.

Even more dramatic, it is predicted that wars will be fought over water this century, just as wars were and are still being fought over control of oil.

“The global population tripled in the 20th century but water consumption went up sevenfold,” noted Maudhe Barlow of the Council of Canadians and an expert on the global water crisis in her book Blue Covenant.

“By 2050, after we add another 3 billion to the population, humans will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where this water is going to come from.”

There is a rapidly growing demand for freshwater but its supply is limited and decreasing.

Water supply is affected by the loss of watersheds due to deforestation and soil erosion in hills and mountains. There is also a severe depletion of valuable groundwater resources as water is extracted for agriculture and industry, and is being drawn from deeper and deeper sources.

The mining of groundwater has caused the water table to drop in parts of many countries including India and China, West Asia, Russia, and the United States.

Agriculture uses 70 percent of the water consumed because of the intense needs of industrial farming: it takes three cubic metres of water to produce a kilo of cereals and 15 cubic metres to produce a kilo of beef because of the grain fed to the cows.

A lot of surface water is also polluted and thus not available for human use, or if it is used, causes health problems. Five million people die from water-borne diseases annually.

Water supplies are also being affected by climate change. Global warming is causing an accelerated melting of the glaciers and there will be fewer glaciers in the future.

For example, the Himalayan glaciers feed many of the great rivers in India, China, and Southeast Asia, “The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe,” warns Yao Tandong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Water scarcity has also become a reason for conflict. This is especially true when a source of water such as a major river serves more than one country.

In Africa, about 50 rivers are each shared by two or more countries. According to an issue of Population Reports, access to water from the Nile, Zambezi, Niger, and Volta river basins in particular has the potential to ignite conflicts.

In the Middle East, which has been running out of water, the potential for conflict has increased. In his recent book, “Water”, Steven Solomon describes the growing tension over the sharing of water resources of the Nile, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia.

In the Jordan River basin, writes Solomon, “in one of the world’s political hot spots, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians contest to control and divide the scarce resources of a region that long ago ran out of enough freshwater for everyone.”

Another issue is the fight over the systems for owning and distributing the scarce water resources. Barlow describes the recent policies to privatise water, which until recently was under direct control of government authorities.

Privatisation was first carried out in Western countries and then spread to developing countries through World Bank loans and projects.

This has had to adverse effects on people’s access to water, according to Barlow, who also documents the fight by citizen groups in many countries to make water a public good, and to make access to water a human right.

As Solomon puts it: “An explosive new political fault line is erupting across the global landscape between the water Haves and water Have Nots. Simply put, water is surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource. Just as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over fresh water is set to shape a new turning point in the world order and the destiny of civilisation.”

Thus, water must be recognised as a crisis issue and solutions to the crisis should be at the top of the global and national agendas.

It is thus timely that the UN General Assembly, the world’s top policy forum, has adopted the resolution asserting that the right to water and sanitation is a human right. Operationalising this right so that all human beings have access to water, and that all countries have the capacity to obtain, manage and wisely use water resources, is imperative. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Martin Khor is the executive director of the South Centre (director@southcentre.org).

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