Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: One-Third Of Population To Face Water Scarcity

Washington, 18 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new study of the world's water predicts that one-third of the global population will experience severe water scarcity within the next 25 years.

The study, by the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka, says that Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are among 18 nations which will not have enough water to meet 1990 levels of per capita food production along with minimal industrial and household needs by 2025.

The institute is part of the World Bank-supported Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, whose public awareness organization, Future Harvest, co-sponsored the study.

Barbara Alison Rose, Operations Director for Washington-based Future Harvest says Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, like Israel, Jordan and the Palestine area, face an absolute water scarcity:

"Like everyone else, they need to be looking at how to conserve water, how to get water back into the aquifers. What this is suggesting is they are pulling out more water than they are putting back in."

The study says Iran and Iraq would have to more than double water development efforts to make it to 2025. It puts Albania and Turkey in a lower level of concern where water development should be increased by at least 25 percent to meet 2025 needs. Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the U.S. are in the lowest level of concern, where the study suggests a five percent overall increase in water development should suffice.

Rose says this study is different in that it looks at the complete cycle of use and re-use of the world's fresh water:

"A lot of people just look at what's used on the surface and they don't think about what goes back into the system. And what it does is look at what is happening to the aquifers under the ground. And unfortunately, its finding are fairly negative -- we are depleting those natural aquifers quite rapidly."

Aquifers are the underground layers of porous rock which hold most of the world's supply of fresh water.

The study examines on a country by country basis not only how much water is withdrawn by the four major users -- agriculture, industry, households and the environment -- but also how much water returns to the ground to recharge aquifers.

In recent years as more water has been used to support growing populations, there has been less water available to recharge groundwater supplies. Says Rose:

"It's really astonishing that more engineers and policy makers aren't looking at this issue of how we can recharge our aquifers. Everyone's been very focused on what happens above the ground, but we've really got to start looking below the ground and figuring out ways to get the water back in."

She says world wide, agriculture uses about 70 percent of all fresh water, but the simple solution of making irrigation more efficient is not the only, or necessarily best, solution:

"We've got to put more water back into the ground. And there are some suggestions made, in terms of new forms of catchments, ways to pump water back into the ground from flowing sources of water. It's interesting, even in areas where there is rice paddy cultivation, they are actually suggesting that you want less efficient irrigation so that the water will percolate down during the rainy season into the aquifer so that it's there in the dry season."

Rose says it is going to take all the different sectors of the economy working together to meet this looming crisis:

"Now what we don't want to do, obviously, is reduce irrigation because when you reduce irrigation you reduce food production. We're also increasing our populations in these regions, we're going to need more food to feed our populations. So it's not really a viable alternative, although it is something they are turning to in the middle east. It will be probably movement of water out of irrigation into other uses. And there will be more importing of food in that region because they really have come to the limits of their water use there."

Some other parts of the world, principally Pakistan and parts of India, face a different problem. There, rising water tables of polluted and oversalinized water are killing crops by waterlogging and adding a deadly level of salt to the soil.

The director of the study, David Seckler, says water scarcity is now the single greatest threat to human health, the environment and the food supply. He says it threatens global peace as parts of Asia and the Middle East seek to cope with the shortages.