05 March 2003
Text: U.N. Report Warns of Worsening World Water Crisis
(Study released prior to start of World Water Forum in Kyoto) (4180)
The world water crisis will reach unprecedented levels in the years
ahead as resources steadily decline because of population growth,
pollution and expected climate change, and also because of political
inertia, according to a major study released by the United Nations.
A March 5 press release says the 600-page World Water Development
Report -- more than two years in the making and based on contributions
from 23 U.N. agencies and commissions -- is the most comprehensive
overview of the planet's most essential natural resource. It is being
released prior to the start of the Third World Water Forum to be held
March 16-23 in Kyoto, Japan.
The report, released by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO), takes an in-depth look at every major dimension
of water use and management -- from the growth of cities to the threat
of looming water wars between countries. It charges that the water
crisis "is a crisis of governance and a lack of political will to
manage the resource wisely."
The report predicts that as many as 7,000 million people in 60
countries could face water scarcity by 2050, but the full extent of
the global water crisis will depend on factors like population growth
and policy-making. Climate change will account for an estimated 20
percent of this increase in global water scarcity, according to the
"Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing
at an unsustainable rate," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro
Matsuura. "Over the next 20 years, the average supply of water
worldwide per person is expected to drop by a third."
The report says pollution is also a major problem and that the poor
continue to be the worst affected, with 50 percent of the population
in developing countries exposed to polluted water sources. Asian
rivers are the most polluted in the world, with three times the amount
of bacteria from human waste as the global average.
If pollution keeps pace with population growth, the report says the
world will effectively lose 18,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater by
2050 -- almost nine times the total amount countries currently use
each year for irrigation. Irrigation currently accounts for 70 percent
of all water withdrawals worldwide.
The report says that despite widely available evidence of the crisis,
political commitment to reverse these trends has been lacking, and
that while several targets have been set at international conferences
to improve water management, "hardly any have been met." The United
Nations currently has a goal to reduce by one half the proportion of
people who lack reliable access to clean water by the year 2015.
The press release includes highlights from each chapter of the report.
An executive summary of the report can be found at the following Web
Following is the text of the press release:
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
March 5, 2003
Political inertia exacerbates water crisis, says World Water
First UN system-wide evaluation of global water resources
Paris -- Faced with "inertia at the leadership level", the global
water crisis will reach unprecedented levels in the years ahead with
"growing per capita scarcity of water in many parts of the developing
world", according to a United Nations report made public today. Water
resources will steadily decline because of population growth,
pollution and expected climate change. The World Water Development
Report -- Water for People, Water for Life -- is the most
comprehensive, up-to-date overview of the state of the resource.
Presented on the eve of the Third World Water Forum (Kyoto, Japan,
March 16 -- 23), it represents the single most important intellectual
contribution to the Forum and the International Year of Freshwater
(http://www.wateryear2003.org), which is being led by UNESCO and the
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
To compile the report, every UN agency and commission dealing with
water has for the first time worked jointly to monitor progress
against water-related targets in such fields as health, food,
ecosystems, cities, industry, energy, risk management, economic
evaluation, resource sharing and governance. The 23 UN partners
constitute the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP), whose
secretariat is hosted by UNESCO.
"Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis
is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our
planet Earth," says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.
"No region will be spared from the impact of this crisis which touches
every facet of life, from the health of children to the ability of
nations to secure food for their citizens," says Mr. Matsuura. "Water
supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing at an
unsustainable rate. Over the next 20 years, the average supply of
water world-wide per person is expected to drop by a third."
Despite widely available evidence of the crisis, political commitment
to reverse these trends has been lacking. A string of international
conferences over the past 25 years has focused on the great variety of
water issues including ways to provide the basic water supply and
sanitation services required in the years to come. Several targets
have been set to improve water management but "hardly any", says the
report, "have been met."
"Attitude and behavior problems lie at the heart of the crisis," says
the report, "inertia at leadership level, and a world population not
fully aware of the scale of the problem means we fail to take the
needed timely corrective actions".
Many countries and territories are already in a state of crisis. The
report ranks over 180 countries and territories in terms of the amount
of renewable water resources available per capita, meaning all of the
water circulating on the surface, in the soil or deeper underground.
The poorest in terms of water availability is Kuwait (where 10 m³ is
available per person each year) followed by Gaza Strip (52 m³), United
Arab Emirates (58 m³), Bahamas (66 m³), Qatar (94 m³), Maldives (103
m³), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (113 m³), Saudi Arabia (118 m³), Malta
(129 m³) and Singapore (149 m³).
The top ten water-rich countries (with the exception of Greenland and
Alaska) are: French Guiana (812,121 m³ available per person per year),
Iceland (609,319 m³), Guyana (316,689 m³), Suriname (292,566 m³),
Congo (275,679 m³), Papua New Guinea (166,563 m³), Gabon (133,333 m³),
Solomon Islands (100,000 m³), Canada (94,353 m³), New Zealand (86,554
By the middle of this century, at worst seven billion people in 60
countries will be faced with water scarcity, at best 2 billion in 48
countries, depending on factors like population growth and
policy-making. Climate change will account for an estimated 20% of
this increase in global water scarcity, according to the report. Humid
areas will probably see more rain, while it is expected to decrease
and become more erratic in many drought-prone regions and even some
tropical and sub-tropical regions. Water quality will worsen with
rising pollution levels and water temperatures.
The water crisis "is set to worsen despite continuing debate over the
very existence of such a crisis," says the report. About 2 million
tons of waste are dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams. One
liter of wastewater pollutes about eight liters of freshwater.
According to calculations in the report, there is an estimated 12,000
km³ of polluted water worldwide, which is more than the total amount
contained in the world's ten largest river basins at any given moment.
Therefore, if pollution keeps pace with population growth, the world
will effectively lose 18,000 km³ of freshwater by 2050 -- almost nine
times the total amount countries currently use each year for
irrigation, which is by far the largest consumer of the resource.
Irrigation currently accounts for 70% of all water withdrawals
The report ranks 122 countries according to the quality of their water
as well as their ability and commitment to improve the situation.
Belgium is considered the worst basically because of the low quantity
and quality of its groundwater combined with heavy industrial
pollution and poor treatment of wastewater. It is followed by Morocco,
India, Jordan, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African
Republic and Rwanda.
The list of countries with the best quality is headed by Finland
followed by Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Japan, Norway,
Russian Federation, Republic of Korea, Sweden and France.
"The poor continue to be the worst affected, with 50% of the
population in developing countries exposed to polluted water sources,"
says the report. Asian rivers are the most polluted in the world, with
three times as many bacteria from human waste as the global average.
Moreover, these rivers have 20 times more lead than those of
"The future of many parts of the world looks bleak," says the report,
in reference to projected population growth, which will continue to be
a driving factor in the water crisis. Per capita water supplies
decreased by a third between 1970 and 1990, according to the report.
Even though birth rates are slowing down, the world's population
should still reach about 9.3 billion by 2050 (compared to 6.1 billion
"Water consumption has almost doubled in the last 50 years. A child
born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times the water
resources of one in the developing world. Meanwhile water quality
continues to worsen [...]. Every day, 6000 people, mostly children
under the age of five, die from diarrheal diseases," says the report.
"These statistics illustrate the enormity of the problems facing the
world with respect to its water resources, and the startling
disparities that exist in its utilization."
Against this background, the report takes an in-depth look at every
major dimension of water use and management -- from the growth of
cities to the threat of looming water wars between countries. A single
thread runs through each section: the water crisis -- be it the number
of children dying of disease or polluted rivers -- is a crisis of
governance and a lack of political will to manage the resource wisely.
"Globally, the challenge lies in raising the political will to
implement water-related commitments," says the report. "Water
professionals need a better understanding of the broader social,
economic and political context, while politicians need to be better
informed about water resource issues. Otherwise water will continue to
be an area for political rhetoric and lofty promises instead of sorely
With more than 25 world maps, numerous charts, graphs and seven case
studies of major river basins, the report analyzes how diverse
societies cope with water scarcity, including policies that work or
don't work. It lays the foundations -- through the World Water
Assessment Program -- for the UN to regularly monitor and report on
the state of the resource by developing a set of standardized
methodologies, data and indicators.
The report will be formally presented to the international community
on World Water Day, March 22nd, (www.waterday2003.org) during the
World Water Forum in Kyoto. A series of high-level panel discussions
will be organized to discuss the results.
Health and Economics
"The 21st century is the century in which the overriding problem is
one of water quality and management," says the report. More than 2.2
million people die each year from diseases related to contaminated
drinking water and poor sanitation. Water vector-borne diseases also
take a heavy toll: about a million people die from malaria each year
and more than 200 million suffer from schistosomiasis, known as
bilharzias. "Yet these terrible losses, with the waste and suffering
they represent, are preventable."
The international community pledged in the UN Millennium Development
Goals (2000) and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
(Johannesburg, 2002) to halve the proportion of people without access
to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. To achieve these
targets, an additional 1.5 billion people will require improved access
to water supply (by 2015). This means providing services for another
100 million people each year (274,000/day) from 2000 to 2015.
"The challenge for sanitation is more daunting," says the report. An
additional 1.9 billion people will need improved access, which means
another 125 million each year (342,000/day) from 2000 to 2015. The
report explains that cultural factors further complicate the
logistical and financial difficulties in providing adequate
If the current level of investment were maintained, all regions in the
world could reach or come close to both goals, with the exception of
sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report. But "in absolute terms,
the investment needs of Asia outstrip those of Africa, Latin America
and the Caribbean combined." It is estimated that the first
interventions would cost about US$12.6 billion.
Questions remain as to the source of this investment. "Financing the
Millennium Development Goals will probably be one of the most
important challenges that the international community will have to
face over the next 15 years," says the report.
The report outlines debates over water pricing and privatization.
"Although it is considered essential to involve the private sector in
water resource management," according to the executive summary of the
report, "it should be seen as a financial catalyst -- not so much as a
precondition -- for project development [...]. Control of the assets
and the resource should remain in the hands of the government and
The report also insists that any privatization or water-pricing scheme
must include mechanisms to protect the poor. "A disturbing fact is
that poor people with the most limited access to water supply have to
pay significantly more for water." In Delhi (India), for example,
vendors charge the poor US$4.89 per m³, while families with piped
connections pay just US$0.01, according to a survey published in the
report. In Vientiane (Lao PDR), vendors charge $US14.68 per m³,
compared to municipal tariffs of US$0.11.
About 25,000 people die every day from hunger, according to the
report. An estimated 815 million people suffer from undernourishment:
777 million in developing countries, 27 million in countries in
transition and 11 million in industrialized countries.
"The absolute number of undernourished people is reducing at a much
slower rate," says the report, despite the fact that "food production
is satisfying the market demand at historically low prices".
The international community has pledged through the Millennium Goals
(2000) to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger by
2015. However, this may not be achieved before 2030 according to new
findings presented in the report. Previous estimates did not
distinguish between rain fed and irrigated crops. By factoring in this
distinction, the report presents more precise projections concerning
the water required to feed the world today and in the future.
According to these new calculations, another 45 million hectares will
be irrigated by 2030 in 93 developing countries, where most of the
population growth will take place. About 60% of all land that could be
irrigated will be in use. This will require an increase by 14% of
irrigation water, according to the report.
Of the some 170 countries and territories surveyed, 20 are already
using more than 40% of their renewable water resources for irrigation,
"a threshold used to flag the level at which countries are forced to
make difficult choices between their agricultural and urban water
supply sectors", says the report. Another 16 countries use more than
20%, "which can indicate impending water scarcity. By 2030 South Asia
will on average have reached the 40% level, and the Near East and
North Africa not less than 58%."
By contrast, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and East Asia are
likely to remain far below the critical threshold. These regions will
see the bulk of agricultural expansion in the next 30 years.
The challenge lies in improving efficiency of land and water use.
Irrigation is extremely inefficient -- close to 60% of the water used
is wasted. This will only improve by an estimated total of 4%. There
is a tremendous need to improve the financing of better technology and
to promote better management practices.
On a more positive note, average grain yields doubled between 1962 and
1996, from 1.4 to 2.8 tons/hectares/crop. This means that less than
half the amount of arable land is now required to grow the same amount
of grain. "By 2030, it is expected that 80% of increased crop
production will come from higher yields, increased multiple cropping
and shorter fallow periods," says the report.
"Towards 2050, the world could enjoy access to food for all," says the
report. "The fact that 815 million are presently ravaged by chronic
undernourishment is not due to a lack of capacity to produce the
required food, but to global and national social, economic and
political contexts that permit, and sometimes cause, unacceptable
levels of poverty to perpetuate."
According to the World Water Development Report: Using treated
wastewater could ease the water crisis. Farmers already use this
resource for about 10% of irrigated land in developing countries and
could use more. With proper treatment, it can actually improve soil
Food security is improving globally. Per capita food consumption in
developing countries rose from 2,054 kcal per day in 1965 to 2,681 in
Pastures and crops take up 37% of the Earth's land area.
About 10% of the world's irrigated lands have been damaged by
waterlogging and salinization because of poor drainage and irrigation
"By the year 2025, it is predicted that water withdrawal will increase
by 50% in developing countries and 18% in developed countries," says
the report. "Effects on the world's ecosystems have the potential to
dramatically worsen the present situation..."
The report describes a vicious circle unleashed by growing water
demand. By depleting and polluting rivers, lakes and wetlands, we are
destroying ecosystems which play an essential role in filtering and
assuring freshwater resources.
In the United States, 40% of water bodies assessed in 1998 were not
deemed fit for recreational use due to nutrient, metal and
agricultural pollution. Furthermore only five out of 55 rivers in
Europe are considered pristine, according to the report and, in Asia,
all rivers running through cities are badly polluted. 60% of the
world's 227 largest rivers are severely fragmented by dams, diversions
and canals leading to the degradation of ecosystems.
Turning to the animal life of inland waters, the report says that 24%
of mammals and 12% of birds are threatened. Between 34 and 80 fish
species have become extinct since the late 19th century, six since
1970. Only about 10% of the world's fish species, the majority from
inland waters, have been studied in detail, yet a third are at risk.
International Conflict and Cooperation
As demand for water grows, there is much talk of looming water wars.
The report presents empirical data indicating the contrary. While
water scarcity will intensify conflicts between states, there is
little evidence to suggest that these situations will explode into
full-fledged water wars.
The report highlights the findings of a study of every single
water-related interaction between two countries or more over the past
50 years. Of the total of 1,831 interactions, the overwhelming
majority, 1,228, were cooperative. They involved the signing of about
200 water-sharing treaties or the construction of new dams.
There is a total of 507 conflictive events. Only 37 involved violence,
of which 21 consisted of military acts (18 between Israel and its
"Some of the most vociferous enemies around the world have negotiated
water agreements or are in the process of doing so concerning
international rivers," says the report. "The Mekong Committee, for
example, continued to exchange data throughout the Viet Nam War. The
Indus River Commission survived through two wars between India and
Pakistan. And all ten Nile riparian states are currently involved in
negotiations over development of the basin."
There are 261 international rivers basins, involving 145 nations.
About one third of these basins are shared by more than two countries,
and 19 involve five or more. According to the report, a good part of
Africa and the Middle East depend upon these shared resources for more
than half their water supplies as does the southern tip of Latin
While much attention has been paid to international rivers,
groundwater supplies (aquifers) have been largely ignored, despite the
massive volumes of generally high-quality water involved (estimated at
23,400,000 km³ compared with the 42,800 km³ in rivers). Many
decision-makers are not even aware that they share aquifers with other
countries. The report presents the preliminary findings of a UN
initiative to compile the first global map and inventory of these
It also presents the first map of the world's groundwater resources.
Aquifers store as much as 98% of accessible water supplies. Between
600 to 700 km³ are extracted each year, providing about 50% of the
world's drinking supply, 40% of industrial demands and 20% of
irrigated agriculture, according to the report. These proportions vary
widely from country to country and are presented in a detailed chart.
"When infrastructure and services are lacking, urban areas lacking
water infrastructure are among the world's most life threatening
environments," says the report. According to a survey of 116 cities,
urban areas in Africa are the worst served, with only 18% of
households connected to sewers. The connection rate in Asia is just
"The poor of these cities are the first victims of sanitation-related
disease, flooding and even a rising rate of water-borne disease like
malaria, which is now among the main causes of illness and death in
many urban areas," says the report. In South Asia, for example, the
Anopheles stephensi mosquito has actually adapted its breeding habits
around the ubiquitous rooftop water storage tankers.
"From a public health perspective," says the report, "it is better to
provide a whole city's population with safe supplies to taps within 50
meters of their home than to provide only the richest 20% of
households with water piped to their home."
The report also outlines several reasons as to why cities and towns
should take priority over rural areas when choices must be made.
First, the unit costs of the required infrastructure are lower because
urban areas provide significant economies of scale and proximity.
Secondly, many cities have a more prosperous economic base than rural
areas, providing greater possibilities to raise revenues for water
provision. Thirdly, "urban areas concentrate not only people and
enterprises but also their wastes."
Today industry accounts for 22% of total water use in the world: 59%
in high-income countries and 8% in low-income countries. The report
predicts that this average will reach 24% by 2025, when industry uses
an estimated 1,170 km³/year.
Every year, 300 -- 500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic
sludge and other wastes accumulate in water resources from industry.
More than 80% of the world's hazardous waste is produced in the United
States and other industrial countries.
Natural Disaster Risk
The report outlines the need to make risk reduction an integral part
of water resource management. While the number of geophysical
disasters like earthquakes and landslides has remained fairly steady,
the scale and number of water-related events (droughts and floods) has
more than doubled since 1996. During the past decade, 665,000 people
were killed by natural disasters. Over 90% lost their lives in floods
and droughts. 35% of these disasters occurred in Asia, 29% in Africa,
20% in the Americas, 13% in Europe and the rest in Oceania.
Hydropower is the most important and widely used renewable source of
energy, providing 19% of total electricity production in 2001.
Industrialized countries are exploiting about 70% of their electricity
potential, compared to 15% in developing countries, according to the
report. Canada is the largest producer followed by the United States
and Brazil. Untapped hydro-resources are still abundant in Latin
America, India and China.
"By developing half of this potential, we could reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by about 13%," says the report. However, it also points to
the many negative impacts of dam construction, including displacement
of local populations and environmental damage (like loss of
biodiversity and wetlands).
World Water Portal
WWAP, together with other partners, is developing the World Water
Portal, to provide seamless access to a wide body of water information
to decision-makers, water managers, technicians and the public at
large. Before going global, a prototype water portal has been
developed for the Americas to test ways of sharing information among
local, national and regional water organizations.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)