Easing the World Water Squeeze

WASHINGTON, DC, March 18, 1999 (ENS) - The failure of the winter rains in the Middle East have brought the worst drought in 50 years. Israel has cut the supply of desperately needed water to Jordan, a move likely to provoke a crisis in relations between the two countries. In Amman, the Jordanian capital, people are turning on their taps to find only a trickle of grey liquid.

On Tuesday, the World Bank approved a US$55 million loan to Jordan to improve the efficiency, management, operation, and delivery of water and waste water services for Amman's two million people.

In Vietnam last week, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said the 1998 rainy season ended a month earlier than usual. The total rainfall was only 50-70 percent of the annual average. Water levels in rivers and streams in the north are 20-30 percent lower than average. Salt water has encroached into rice fields. About 1.7 million people lack water for domestic use, and 1.4 million people in 15 provinces lack food.


People in Laos map existing water and sanitation facilities and identify locations for new ones. (Photo courtesy UN Development Programme)
These regional crises graphically demonstrate what World Day for Water, March 22, is all about. The theme of World Water Day 1999 is - Everyone Lives Downstream. The idea is that problems in one part of a watershed, or even in a country abroad, can affect people great distances away.

A United Nations analysis has found that clean, safe water can be brought to the 1.4 billion people around the world without it for as little as $US50 per person. This amount of money could prevent many of the 3.35 billion cases of illness and 5.3 million deaths caused each year by unsafe water.

How bad is the water crisis?

"Driven by a rising global standard of living and increasing food production, water demand is increasing at twice the population growth rate," says Hans van Ginkel, rector of the United Nations University.

An amount of money roughly equal to annual pet food purchases in Europe and the USA is what it would cost for safe water and sanitation to eveyone in need in rural and low-income urban areas. The United Nations estimates that cost at US15 to $US17 billion per year over eight to 10 years.


New well and pump in Malawi (Photo courtesy Church World Service)
Water can be provided with these funds in rural and low-income urban areas with low-cost technologies that include handpumps, gravity-fed systems and rainwater collection built to serve entire rural villages or urban neighborhoods, rather than indoor plumbing for individual houses.

"This is the absolute minimum that the world community must provide to the world's poor without water," says Dr. van Ginkel. "It will save countless lives, and greatly lessen the burden on millions of those, mostly women and children, who must trudge miles each day to bring water to their homes."

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director Klaus Toepfer, a future war over water is a distinct possibility. Toepfer says he is, "convinced that there will be conflict over natural resources, particularly water."

Toepfer advocates monitoring worldwide reserves of drinking water, establishing cooperative agreements on the use of water and economic instruments to stimulate new technologies to promote water conservation.

A documentary film was produced by the editorially independent Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), in cooperation with UNEP and other United Nations agencies. Everybody Lives Downstream focuses on river basins on four continents and creates a symbolic river, with sequences filmed in the Tibetan plateau, the Colombian highlands, and on the Nile, Euphrates and Rhine Rivers. The documentary was broadcast on 8th March 8 and 9 TVE's Earth Report slot on BBC World Television, reaching 135 million homes in 111 countries. It will be distributed and re-broadcast through the TVE network of video resource centres worldwide.

Another documentary film, "Still Waters," on the importance of the world's wetland areas will be broadcast on April 12 on the BBC's Earth Report. The film demonstrates that while we continue to drain and build on wetlands, countries are beginning to appreciate the economic value of maintaining these waterlogged areas of exceptional diversity, and which perform vital services free of charge to humanity.

The audio track for the documentaries will be posted on the UNEP and TVE web sites. They will also be distributed to a global radio station subscriber network through the London Radio Service.

More information on the documentaries and the audio track is online at: tve-dist@tve.org.uk

A major international program on the World Water Day theme will take place in Cairo, Egypt, on March 22. A number of UN agencies will participate. Additional activities are anticipated on the part of governments and other stakeholders throughout the world on this day.