At a glance:
The world’s water crisis

The Earth, with its diverse and abundant life forms, including more than 6 billion humans, is facing a serious water crisis. All the signs suggest that it is getting worse and will continue to do so unless corrective action is taken.

This crisis is essentially one of poor water governance. But the real tragedy is the effect it has on the everyday lives of poor people, who are blighted by the burden of water-related disease, living in degraded and often dangerous environments, struggling to get an education for their children and to earn a living, and to get enough to eat.

The crisis is also experienced by the natural environment, which is groaning under the mountain of wastes dumped on it daily, and from overuse and misuse, with seemingly little care for future consequences and future generations.

In truth it is attitude and behaviour problems that lie at the heart of the crisis. We know most (but not all) of what the problems are and a good deal about where they are. We have the knowledge and expertise to begin to tackle them. We have developed excellent concepts, such as equity and sustainability. Yet inertia at leadership level, and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem (and in many cases not sufficiently empowered to do much about it) mean we fail to take the needed timely corrective actions and put the concepts to work.

For humanity, the poverty of a large percentage of the world’s population is both a symptom and a cause of the water crisis. Giving the poor better access to better managed water can make a big contribution to poverty eradication. Such better management will enable us to deal with the growing per capita scarcity of water in many parts of the developing world.

Solving the water crisis in its many aspects is but one of the several challenges facing humankind as we confront life in this third millennium, and it has to be seen in that context. We have to fit it into an overall scenario of problem-solving and conflict resolution. Yet of all the social and natural resource crises we humans face, it is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth.

Excerpted from the first United Nations World Water Development Report, a joint undertaking of 23 United Nations agencies, including UNEP.

Global trends in water withdrawals, 1900-2000
World water withdrawals rose sixfold over the last century. It has been estimated that humanity now appropriates 54 per cent of accessible runoff, and could be using 70 per cent by the year 2025.

Renewable freshwater supplies
The amount of freshwater in the world remains constant, but its uneven distribution and increasing demand create growing scarcities. At present some 40 per cent of the world’s population live in areas with moderate to high water stress.

By 2025 this is expected to increase to two thirds - or 5.5 billion people.

Number of people living in areas with severe water stress
UNEP’s GEO 3 report provides different scenarios of water shortages. ‘Markets First’ adopts the expectations prevailing in today’s developed countries and severe water stress increases in almost all parts of the world. ‘Sustainability First’ – a new environment and development paradigm – shows the area under severe water stress remaining more or less constant and, though the absolute number of people increases, the proportion of the world’s population living in conditions of water stress remains much the same.

Regional freshwater species population trends
Species have been declining faster in freshwater than in any other habitat on Earth. About half the world’s wetlands have been lost, and more than a fifth of known freshwater species have already been driven to extinction. Over the last 30 years, the Freshwater Species Index fell by 50 per cent. WWF points out that the relatively smaller decline in North America and Europe shown by the index is deceptive: much of the loss in industrialized countries occurred before 1970.

Access to water
More than 1 billion people lack access to a steady supply of clean, safe water, while 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation. More than 2 million people die each year from associated diseases; including 6,000 children every day. The situation has been improving but, at the present rate of investment, universal access to safe drinking water cannot reasonably be anticipated before 2025 in Asia, 2040 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 2050 in Africa.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries