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UN: Report Warns Of World Water Crisis In Coming Decades

A UN report says the world faces a water crisis in the near future as the average water supply per person is expected to drop by one-third in 20 years. The report lists population growth, pollution, and global warming as the main causes for the decline. The document, launched today ahead of the Third World Water Forum scheduled this month in Japan, ranks 122 countries on the quality of their water supplies, with Finland at the top and -- surprisingly -- Belgium at the bottom.

Prague, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations report warns that dwindling water supplies and a fast-growing global demand are likely to cause a water crisis over the next few decades.

"The World Water Development Report," compiled by UNESCO's World Water Assessment Program, urges world leaders to act, saying that resolving the water crisis is "a political decision." The report was launched today in Tokyo ahead of the Third World Water Forum, a major conference on the future of the world's fresh water supplies, to be held in Japan later this month (16-23 March).

The document, described as the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's fresh-water supplies, also ranks 122 countries based on the quality of their water provision, with Finland, Canada, and New Zealand at the top.

The figures are based on factors such as quality and quantity of fresh water, ground water, and sewage treatment as well as the observance of antipollution laws.

Surprisingly, Belgium comes bottom of the heap, behind countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, India, and Morocco. The report says water quality in Belgium is tainted by runoffs from agricultural waste and industrial pollution.

Andras Szollosi-Nagy, director of UNESCO's Division of Water Sciences and coordinator of UNESCO's environmental programs, told RFE/RL the report attempts to spot problem areas and makes several important recommendations. "It tries to identify some critical areas where help is needed, where water may become perhaps a source of conflict or a source of cooperation. Also, it tries to identify some of the critical areas water management is now facing. There are some very important recommendations, for instance with aspect to the government of water resources, both at a local level and all the way up to regional and to global level," Szollosi-Nagy said.

The report says over the next 20 years, the global average water supply per person is expected to drop by a third. It goes on to warn that unless political leaders tackle the crisis, fresh-water scarcity by 2050 will affect as many as three-quarters of a projected global population of 9.3 billion people

Szollosi-Nagy said the amount of clean water per person has dropped significantly in the past 30 years. "While in the 1970s the per capita water availability -- and of course, this is an average number -- was around 13,000 cubic meters per person per year. Today, some 33 years after, it is 6,600 cubic meters per person per year, and that is a dramatic decrease. Of course, one cannot come up with a linear extrapolation and say we'll be running out of water in yet another 25 years, but the fact that water resources are diminishing is a very serious fact," Szollosi-Nagy said.

The document lists pollution as one of the factors in destroying the availability of fresh water, with 2 million tons of waste being dumped daily into rivers and lakes. The report says more than 2.2 million people die annually from diseases related to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation.

Global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is also likely to change rainfall patterns, thus adding to the pressure on fresh-water supplies. Climate change, says the report, will be responsible for a fifth of water scarcity in the world.

The report says that in Central Asia, where water is already scarce, the situation will further deteriorate. Szollosi-Nagy said the problem of the Aral Sea, which continues to shrink, is only one problem. "One of the important conclusions of the report is that water will become a serious limit, if not an obstacle, to sustainable development in the Central Asian region. Not only, of course, the Aral Sea problem that everybody knows quite well, but the water-quality problems and water-management problems, which are linked to the management of water resources in the whole Central Asian region," Szollosi-Nagy said.

Szollosi-Nagy also points to the situation in the Volga River basin, where some 80 percent of Russia's population lives. He says there is tremendous pressure on the Volga water resources, due both to agricultural and industrial activities. But Szollosi-Nagy acknowledges there is political will in Russia to deal with the problem.

Meanwhile in Central and Eastern Europe, where water quality suffered under communism, the situation has improved. "One can see the situation is improving, particularly in basins which are shared basins. Again, a good example is the Danube basin, where there is a well-established mechanism that facilitates cooperation of the nations sharing that basin, ranging from exchanging data, ranging from exchanging flood forecasts and ranging from water-quality measures and indicators which could be and should be improved, and in fact, over the past years, they have been improved," Szollosi-Nagy said.

Gordon Young, the coordinator of the UN's World Water Assessment Program, said today that spending $50 billion or $100 billion annually on water would solve many of the world's health problems. For comparison, Young said, some $30 billion is spent each year on activities such as golf that consume a huge amount of water.

Young said that at the UN's Johannesburg Earth Summit last year, world leaders committed themselves to cutting by half the number of people deprived of drinking water, some 1.1 billion, by 2015 and to halve the number of inhabitants without basic sanitation, some 2.4 billion people. But the report says for these goals to be achieved, more money and much more political will are necessary.