Water is the most important single element needed in order for people to achieve the universal human right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family." (Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) Without access to clean water, health and well-being are not only severely jeopardized, they are impossible: people without basic water supplies live greatly reduced and impoverished lives - with little opportunity to create better futures for their children.
Let us acknowledge that clean water is a universal human right, and in so doing accept that we have the corresponding universal responsibility to ensure that the forecast of a world where, in 25 years' time, two out of every three persons face water-stress is proven wrong. In this issue, United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Annan asks us to face up to the threat of a catastrophic water crisis and counter such bleak forecasts by adopting a new spirit of stewardship. To do otherwise would be nothing less than a crime and history will rightly judge current generations harshly for it.
The world's growing population should be seen not only as one of the causes of the water crisis, but also as the source of its solution, as is stressed by Former President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, using the example of the enormous potential of people-power in South East Asia. Human solidarity is the only force capable of facing a task of this magnitude. There must be solidarity in international and regional governance; there must be solidarity between sectors and stakeholders; and there must be political will amongst governments to work in good faith both with their neighbors and with their own people. These people, including often marginalized groups such as women and minorities, must have a voice, and the information and means necessary to use it.
Without water security, social, economic and national stability are imperiled. This is magnified where water flows across borders - and becomes crucial in regions of religious, territorial or ethnic tension. In some cases, as between India and Pakistan over the Indus River, successful cooperation over water resources can be cited as proof that even states with difficult relations can work together. In other cases, the opportunities to improve regional relations which a common watercourse presents have not yet been grasped. The Jordan Valley, shared by the people of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, is one such example.
Water has been a fundamental security matter in the arid Middle East since antiquity. The allocation, use and rights to the increasingly scarce water resources of this volatile region remain sensitive, and potentially explosive, issues. Water is also largely sidelined, or hidden, in the mainstream peace negotiations. Hanan Sher of The Jerusalem Post sheds light on the trials and tribulations encountered on the road towards achieving water for peace in the Middle East, a road which I myself have recently revisited. Earlier this year I met with Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat and King Abdullah of Jordan, and obtained their commitment to work with my organization, Green Cross International, and our partners, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, to find solutions to the escalating regional water crisis.
These three leaders explicitly recognized that there can be no unilateral solutions to their essentially trans-boundary water problems. This is as true in the Middle East as it is regarding watercourses shared between the United States and its neighbors. In all of the world’s 261 international basins, joint management should be built on a system of effective interdependence; a pooling rather than a restriction of each nations’ sovereignty.
While armed, inter-state conflicts over water are unlikely, it must be remembered that these are not the only types of conflicts facing water-stressed societies. Internal conflicts between ethnic groups, regions, users and small communities can and do arise over water. Inter-state cooperation is essential to the search for regional water solutions. Where such solutions are not easily forthcoming, international mediation and support should be available. A movement to provide such support has been initiated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with the establishment of a Global Alliance for Water Security.
In most cases, however, the practical solutions required are local, reflecting the geographically and culturally specific nature of water-use. The Cold War era of "the bigger the better", which prompted the construction of 45,000 large dams throughout the world, is over. This thoughtless tampering with nature has left a terrible legacy, not least in my own region where thousands of acres of fertile land have been lost, and man-made catastrophes such as in the Aral Sea region cause immeasurable suffering. The articles provided by Kader Asmal of the World Commission on Dams, and water expert Anil Agarwal, seek the path to a new era where social and environmental considerations are given precedence and the benefits of large constructs like dams are questioned. The United States, the second most "dammed" nation, after China, is already breaching many of its dams; elsewhere, particularly in the developing world, the question is how to provide the services supplied by dam projects through other initiatives, like rainwater harvesting and demand management.
At the heart of the matter is the value which we assign to different uses of water. Again, there is no universal blueprint, but it is clear that neither of the two extreme stances, one advocating that water should be free for all, and the other promoting full cost pricing for all water supplies, are desirable. We must remember that the value and the price of water are two very different things; it is substance which must be used efficiently, but must be available for the sustenance of all - including natural ecosystems. This makes the pricing of water a tricky business, as we gather further from World Commission on Water Chairman, Ismail Serageldin, and Douglas B. MacDonald’s insights on the subject.
Thus we are faced with a mighty challenge. Fortunately we have a history of meeting great challenges using imagination and our irrepressible capacity to adapt. To ensure that we journey in the right direction, we must allow our knowledge, experience and institutions to catch up with the overwhelming progress of science and technology, and learn how to become both good neighbors for each other and good guests of the natural environment.
Just as we are moved by water, we must move quickly in order to save it.
Introductory article written for Civilization, the Magazine of the US Library of Congress, October-November 2000, by Guest Editor Mikhail Gorbachev.
What is Water Scarcity?
There are millions of people all over the world who don’t have access to water, or, if they have access, that water is unable to be used. About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water and 3% of it is actually freshwater that is fit for human consumption. Around two-thirds of that is tucked in frozen glaciers and unavailable for our use. According to WWF, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year.
Clean drinking water is scarce and there are millions of people across this globe who spend their entire day searching for it. Yet, people who have access to safe, clean drinking water take it for granted and don’t use it wisely.
Water scarcity involves water crisis, water shortage, water deficit or water stress. Water scarcity can be due to physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity refers to a situation where natural water resources are unable to meet a region’s demand and economic water scarcity is a result of poor water management resources.
That being said, what are the causes of water scarcity, what are the effects of water scarcity, and are there any solutions that we can start to explore? Here’s a quick look at all of those things in a bit more detail.
Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.
According to Wikipedia, “Water scarcity is the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the demands of water usage within a region. It already affects every continent and around 2.8 billion people around the world at least one month out of every year. More than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water.”
Causes of Water Scarcity
- Overuse of Water: Water overuse is a huge issue that a lot of people are dealing with. It may be overused on people, animals, land, or any other number of things. It may also be used for recreational activities without any care about the effects that it may have on the world around them.
- Pollution of Water: Water pollution is a huge problem, especially when you’re looking at areas that don’t necessarily have a good sewage system. Pollution can be anything from oil, to carcasses, to chemicals, and to fecal matter. No matter what it is; it makes a lot of issues for the people who may need to use it.
- Conflict: If there is conflict over an area of land, it may be difficult to access the water that is located there. In the worst case scenarios, people could end up dying if they try to access the water in these areas (due to violence). This can result in a variety of other issues, including pollution, which we discussed in the previous point.
- Distance: There are a number of areas throughout the entire world that deal with water scarcity because they just aren’t close to anywhere that has water. Areas that are considered to be desert, or areas that are secluded, may not have somewhere that the people can get water effectively.
- Drought: A drought is, in short, an area which is not getting enough rainfall to be able to sustain the life that is residing there. Some areas are in perpetual drought, whereas other areas may be dealing with a drought on occasion. Droughts are common all over the world, and there is little that can be done to prevent such things from happening.
- Governmental Access. In some countries, specifically those with dictatorships, the use of water may be strictly controlled by those in power, causing a scarcity for those who may be located in those areas of the world. These governments use it as a source of control over those that they are governing, which can be a huge problem.
Effects of Water Scarcity
- Lack of Access to Drinking Water: The biggest problem that happens when you have water scarcity is that people are not able to get fresh, clean drinking water. The human body can only go so long without water, and a lack of drinking water can result in a number of other problems, which we discuss below.
- Hunger: If there is no water that can be used in order to help water the crops, then you are going to have people that are going hungry. Animals will also die, which will result in a lack of meat as well. Water scarcity, in short, causes starvation to occur en masse for both people and animals that are located in the area.
- Lack of Education: Water scarcity makes it difficult for people to get the education that they need or that they deserve. Why? Mainly, because those children are either too sick to go to school (which we will discuss below), or they are working to help get water to the home and the family.
- Diseases: If you don’t have clean water access, then you will be more likely to get diseases from the water that you do have. Whether you’re drinking the water or using it for bathing, those diseases will get into the body and, in a number of cases, the people carrying those diseases will pass away.
- Sanitation Issues: Without access to clean water, there is no way to clean food, dishes, or people. When people are not given access to proper sanitation, disease (which we talked about above) ends up becoming much more of an issue than it would have been otherwise. It also causes mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
- Poverty: All in all, people who are dealing with water scarcity are often stuck in poverty as well. These people are not able to get the resources that they need in order to be able to thrive, and instead are just barely surviving through these difficult times.
Solutions for Water Scarcity
- Education: There are plenty of opportunities out there that people can use in order to learn more about the world around them. By educating those who are not dealing with water scarcity, they can be in a position to help. Those who are dealing with it can get educated on how they can prevent the problem from becoming even worse in the future.
- Recycle Water: There are plenty of technologies out there that allow you to recycle rainwater and other water that you may be using in your home. Consider learning about how you can recycle water. Not only does it help to prevent scarcity, but it can save you some money as well.
- Advance Technology Related to Water Conservation: There has been a lot of work in the world of water conservation, but there is also a lot that needs to be done in order to ensure that the rest of the world is able to conserve water. Putting money and effort into conservation could be life saving.
- Improve Practices Related to Farming: Farming and irrigation are often a huge culprit when it comes to water scarcity. Because of that, we need to improve practices so that we don’t use as much water and those who are using water are using it to its fullest potential. Technology also needs to advance in this manner.
- Improve Sewage Systems: Clean drinking water starts with a good sewage system. Without proper sanitation, the water in an area becomes ridden with disease and any number of other problems. By improving the sewage systems in these areas, we can prevent water scarcity from becoming any worse.
- Support Clean Water Initiatives: There are organizations located all over the world that are looking to bring clean water to areas that don’t have it. Consider donating to these organizations, either with your time, your skills, or your finances (whichever you can afford to give to them).
So, as you can see, there are a lot of things that we need to consider when we’re looking at water scarcity and how we can deal with it. If we start to look at this issue as a whole, and we work hard to make sure that we are able to make a difference when it comes to this widespread issue, we’re going to be in a much better place to help people all over the world in preventing this issue from getting worse.
Image credit: Vinoth Chandar , World Bank Photo
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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