It’s estimated that 1/6 of world’s population–more than 1 billion people–lack access to life’s most precious, fundamental resource: clean, safe drinking water. The problem is likely to get worse, and faster than most expect in coming years, according to water experts, as demand for water increases as a result of population growth, agriculture and industry needs, raising the potential for conflict between national and sub-national groups laying claim to increasingly scarce water resources. That is unless governments and societies can change their water use habits, upgrade water systems infrastructure and technology, and forge new frameworks and organizations for enhanced water resource management and conservation.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, in New York City, three high-profile organizations intend to call on the UN Security Council “to recognize water as one of the top security concerns facing the global community.”
The health issues alone are disturbing. “Today, a child dies on average every 20 seconds from a water-related disease,” says Zafar Adeel, Director of the United Nations University’s Canada-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH). “That’s a largely invisible average toll of 4,500 children dying every single day.”
Making water security a global priority
“How ironic that the world this year would commemorate the centenary of 1,502 deaths aboard RMS Titanic with movies and elaborate memorial services. Yet, every single day this year, three times as many kids die because of water problems and, for most people, its simply business as usual — appallingly, the world takes little notice.”
One member of the highly regarded group aiming to elevate the issue of water security to higher UN, public and governmental prominence is the InterAction Council (IAC)– a group of 40 former government leaders and heads of state that since 1983 has been voluntarily working on addressing major issues of concern to all human societies. Joining them are UNU-INWEH and Canada’s Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.
“The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating,” former Canadian Prime Minister and IAC co-chair Jean Chrétien elaborated in a press release. “Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future. The IAC is calling on the United Nations Security Council to recognize water as one of the top security concerns facing the global community.”
Coincident with their call on the UN Security Council’s 15 members, the group has released a new UNU-INWEH book, “The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an Urgent Security Issue.” In it, “23 eminent international water experts” examine the issue of water resource use and management at both global and local scales. The identify “a host of serious security, development and social risks associated with the water crisis, including food, health, energy and equity issues.”
New organizational, institutional framework needed
Recognizing the growing, and potentially incendiary, social, economic and political tensions increasingly surrounding water resource use and management around the world—particularly in already troubled areas, such as sub-Saharan and West Africa—the group issues an urgent, worldwide call to the UN Security Council, as well as government leaders and people everywhere to help in forging new institutional and organizational frameworks and mechanisms for more cooperative, integrated water resource conservation and management.
It’s estimated that another 1,000 cubic kilometers (1 trillion cubic meters) of water per year will be needed to feed the 1 billion more people projected to be added to the human population by 2025—that’s equal to the flow of 20 Nile or 100 Colorado Rivers, according to the report. Demand is forecasted to exceed the supply of water in the world’s two most populous countries–India and China—in less than 20 years.
Despite these alarming figures, the problem of water security is in many cases not so much that of water scarcity, or of lack of adequate technology, they note—it’s inefficient use and ineffective management of increasingly precious water resources that’s the crux of water security problems and the challenge to societies worldwide.
Compounding the problems is a changing climate, which is altering longstanding hydrological patterns around the globe. Changes in fundamental hydrology, according to the the report, are expected “to become major trans-boundary water issues,” as incidence of both water scarcity and flooding increase. Such developments are already clearly in evidence in the Middle East, where “water security is key to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and between Israel and its regional neighbors,” the report authors point out.
In addition, competing demands for increasingly scarce water supplies for energy and other uses are already on the rise, bringing to the fore the explosive growth in the number of dams around the world. In 1950, there were 500 large dams on the planet. Today, there are more than 45,000. “This translates to a staggering average of two large dams added daily worldwide since the Korean War,” they state.
In order to address water security, the report calls on governments and international institutions to:
- Radically reform attitudes toward water and how it is managed globally, including programs to reduce demand through conservation, efficiency, re-use and the replenishment of natural systems;
- Increase annual investment in water supply and sanitation-related efforts by approximately US $11 billion;
- Create an international governance mechanism and relevant institutions to cope with the growing number of environmental migrants foreseen in years to come;
- Create new water governance alliances between public, private and civil society sectors, emphasizing the participation of women;
- Pursue a ‘Blue Economy’ economic paradigm in which water sustainability is rewarded;
- Underline the need among government and finance leaders to understand the relationship between clean, safe water and health, development and national economic well-being.
“Water is now playing a determining role in international, national and trans-boundary conflicts,” said IAC Secretary-General Thomas Axworthy, President and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.
“At the same time, water security is also the foundation for food and energy security and for overall long-term social and economic development. It underpins health, nutrition, equity, gender equality, well-being and economic progress, especially in developing countries but increasingly in some of the world’s most developed countries.”