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“A shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future. Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon” - Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Water, water everywhere
Water is an essential for mankind to survive. At first, the global water crisis may seem rather insignificant. Over 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by seas, oceans, and other water bodies. But when we stop to consider that less than 2.5% of this water is freshwater, we may start to see why water is a precious commodity. Of this freshwater, over 70% forms the ice and snow cover of mountains – the origin of most rivers. 29% of the freshwater is underground and a less than 1% is easily accessible for our daily consumption.
The water crisis is currently localized and some parts of the earth are affected much more than other. An African woman living in a village may have to walk an average distance of 10 miles each day to get to fresh, drinking water while an average urban American may need to walk only a few feet to get to a water source. A number of countries are almost entirely dependent on water imports – Kuwait and Malta import almost 87% of their water supplies, Netherlands imports 82%, while Bahrain and Belgium both import about 80%.
According to Nature, the popular science journal, about 80% of the world’s population – pegged at 5.6 billion in 2011- lives in areas which experience high threats to water security. The United Nations now acknowledges water crisis to be a global concern affection many parts of our earth. Clean drinking water remains a scarcity in many countries.
Access to clean drinking water is a big crisis. Every year 3.5 million people die from a water related disease and most are from the developing countries. More than 884 million people around the world do not have access to clean drinking water - this means about one is every nine people suffers from lack of access to freshwater.
37% of the people who lack access to safe drinking water belong to the Sub-Saharan region. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that water crisis is confined to Africa and Asia. According to a UNESDOC report both the area affected by drought and the number of people whose lives were influenced by it doubled in the European Union from 1996 to 2006. About 120 million people in Europe do not have access to safe drinking water.
UN reports say that at least 12 Arab and West Asian countries suffer 'absolute water scarcity', meaning that there is less than 1,32,100 gallons of renewable water resources available in these countries per capita per year. Almost all the Arab nations suffer from water scarcity - the consumption of water is significantly higher than the renewable water supply. About 66% of the Arab world's available surface freshwater originates outside the region making water disputes a greater possibility.
Growing Population & Water Needs
The world population is predicted to grow from 7 billion in 2011 to 8.3 billion in 2030 and to 10 billion in 2050. Currently, over 884 million people in the world still use unimproved drinking water sources. Population explosion is one of the major causes the world faces a potential water crisis. With an additional billion mouths to feed, the need of fresh water for irrigation alone is estimated to go up by about 265 trillion gallons of water. It is also anticipated that by this time water withdrawals will be as high as 50% in developing nations and 18% in developed nations. It is expected that by 2025 that over two-third of the world population will remain under severe water crisis or at least very stressed water conditions.
A look at the US
Water crisis may be unheard of in the US, but what does the future hold for Americans. The consumption of water in the US is among the highest in the world. An average American household goes through over 350 gallons of water each day. This totals up to over 127,000 gallons in a year. And this is only domestic usage. The United States as a whole uses over 148 trillion gallons of fresh water a year. A number of the American states use up about 80% of their available freshwater resources. This means that even a slight increase in consumption can cause a water shortage.
A look at the top water consumers in the US – 49% of water consumption in the US is for the generation of thermoelectric power, irrigation for agriculture and the rearing of livestock takes up about 32% of freshwater resources. Public and domestic supply accounts for about 12% of water in the US and a further 4% is taken up by industries. Mining takes up the remaining 3% of the water supply in the US. While an average American consumes about 99 gallons of water a day some of the poorest countries of the world survive on 2.5 gallons a person each day. According to current estimates the US must spend about $ 255 billion over the next five years to retain or to prevent the degeneration of its water infrastructure. Experts believe that Americans need to drastically decrease their consumption and use a conservative approach to water spending.
Scarcity and misuse of drinking water has led to numerous conflicts across the ages. These conflicts are often inter-state. As the demand for water increases, especially in places where a river flows across international boundaries, it leads to heightened political and diplomatic tensions between the neighbors. Whenever a water conflict arises it becomes imperative to solve it in accordance with the following factors –location, local and international laws, environmental concerns, human rights disputes, and commercial interests.
According to reports, between 1950 and 2000 there have been as many as 1831 water disputes over trans-boundary basins. Sixty% of the world’s 276 international river basins lack any type of cooperative management framework, says the UN.
The United Nations and the World Trade Organization have actively been working towards solving water disputes. The UN International Hydrological Program helps nations to understand water resources better and improve their water management. The Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential mission of UN in the Middle East has been the most effective program to prevent any water conflict. The World Trade Organization also has the power to arbitrate water conflicts between its member states when the disputes are commercial.
Some of the continuing water conflicts in the world include -
Experts estimate water conflicts will be a common feature in the future as human consumption is increasing by the day.
What Can I Do To Help?
Turn off the tap – Turning off the tap while brushing/shaving, using water sensibly and fixing leaky faucets can save about 15 gallons of water a day
Take shorter showers – Cutting down each minute of your shower time saves about 5 – 8 gallons.
Use Right Devices – Replacing your heavy flow showerheads and faucets with low-flow models and adding aerators cut down on a fifth of the water supply.
Plant Shrubs and Groundcovers – Turf requires a lot of water. Shrubs look greener and require a lot less water.
Conserve - Run your clothes washer and dishwasher only when they are full. This saves about between 800 & 1000 gallons a month.
Harvest Rainwater –Create awareness about rainwater harvesting to maintain a sustainable water supply
Community irrigation – Agricultural communities conserve water best by adopting community irrigation techniques.
Using community services - Send your cars to a commercial car wash that recycles water.
Teach the young ones – Come up with a water conservation project for your class. Welcome new ideas.
Build an ecosystem - Direct rainwater and HVAC systems toward your neighborhood parks
Is There Hope Yet?
Despite the dismal statistics, the United Nations does not think that it is time to panic yet. Over 87% of the world’s population has access to improved and safe drinking water. In developing regions too this figure is high at 84%. The urban areas of the world, however, have greater access at 94%, while only 76% of the rural regions have access to improved sources of drinking water.
Between 1990 and 2008 China and India have made a significant progress in providing improved sources of drinking water. While the figures for China have gone up 67% in 1990 to 89% in 2008, in India 88% of the population had access to improved sources of drinking water compared to 72% in 1990. Together, these two countries account for 47% of the 1.8 billion people who have now gained access to clean drinking water.
Trans-boundary water supplies need not only be a source of conflict. These are great foundations for cooperative harvesting of safe water. Over 450 international water agreements were signed between 1820 & 2007.
Click here for more information about Water Crisis Around the World.