Not a drop to drink

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs psychological theory ranks the drinking of water as the most important bodily function after breathing. Yet rapidly increasing scarcity of this resource would seem to be of less concern to the world than, say, climate change or poverty, if major international gatherings are any guide.

Another meeting reaches its climax today in Paris when the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change will release its much-awaited report. Like the volumes of other papers issued recently by various organisations, it will predict more global warming gloom; temperatures will be an average of three degrees Celsius higher by the end of the century, even if concerted efforts are taken immediately to reverse the trend.

All the reports share the same confusion about what exactly needs to be done, how quickly and at what cost. There is one agreement, though: global warming is a reality and the best that can be done is to slow the rate at which temperatures are rising.

The water crisis may not be given as much prominence by the world's leaders, but it is more threatening to human existence. Humanity can adapt to higher temperatures, but without drinkable water, the end is nigh.

Noted Canadian environmentalist and water expert Maude Barlow clearly quantifies the matter in a draft of the opening chapter of her next book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Fight for the Right to Water, to be published next autumn. She estimates that almost one-third of the world's people - about 2 billion - live in water-stressed regions. Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with water-borne diseases.

'Unless we massively change our ways, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity,' Ms Barlow says. 'The global population tripled in the 20th century, but water consumption went up sevenfold. After we add another 3 billion to the population by 2050, humans will need an 80 per cent increase in water use just to feed us. No one knows where this water is going to come from.' Importantly, although the shrinking supplies of clean water due to pollution, population growth and climate change are posing difficulties for many parts of the world, solutions are straightforward: sustainable agriculture, creation and improvement of infrastructure, conservation and reclamation.

Ms Barlow warned from Ottawa yesterday that dramatic and urgent efforts were necessary, particularly in the most vulnerable areas - mainland China, India and Australia. Water is being massively abused, through overpumping from the ground and pollution, she said. In India, 75 per cent of surface water is polluted, while on the mainland the figure is 80 per cent. Ninety per cent of the water beneath mainland cities is tainted. The World Health Organisation believes that three-quarters of China's people are drinking substandard water.

Delivering the keynote address at a conference in Australia last October, she had similarly dire words for the country's largest city, Sydney. The home to 4 million Australians was vying with Beijing and Mexico City to be the world's first major city to run out of water, she warned.

A report by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation on Wednesday backed her fears, saying that unless Sydney residents halved water consumption over the next 20 years, the city would become unsustainable.

Much of the problem is a result of the way Australians treat their continent, the world's driest. Non-indigenous cotton and rice, two of the most water-intensive crops, are grown on massive farms and 95 per cent of the cotton and 85 per cent of the rice is exported. Australia, in the grip of severe drought in eastern states where the two crops are grown, is, in effect, using its water to provide other nations' clothing and food.

As with global warming, there is no shortage of reports and books about the water crisis. What is lacking is the top-level impetus to make it as important an issue. Until that happens, the threat will rapidly grow, until it is too late.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.