More than one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. More than two billion have not an adequate sanitation, annual rates of death from diseases transmitted by water is estimated at over five million. Moreover, the last 30 years have seen a 50% decline in populations of freshwater species, a very high percentage when compared with species of marine and forest ecosystems.
With statistics like this, it is time to worry. With so many people in the world suffering from water shortages, it is time to act to preserve what remains of our freshwater resources.
We should be aware of the myths and facts, and above all, practical solutions to water crisis on the planet at a time when thousands of participants gather in Mexico to attend the 'Fourth World Water Forum', a meeting that aims to raise awareness on water problems and to influence policies on water globally.
Myth: The dams reduce the water crisis in aggregation to generate hydroelectricity and have no negative impact on the environment.
Fact: There are over 48,000 large dams in operation in the world. Many of these dams and other constructions threaten that most largest and important rivers in the world. A recent scientific study shows that over 60% of the 227 largest rivers have been fragmented by dams, leading to destruction of wetlands, a reduction of freshwater species – including river dolphins, fish and birds – and the forced displacement of million people.
While dams can be a major supplier of hydroelectric power, this does not always guarantee reliable supplies of water and electricity. Moreover, they are very expensive to build, far more expensive that measures to reduce demand by using water and electricity more efficiently. In some places, money spent on dams would have more socio-economic benefits if used to restore wetlands. Before building new dams, governments should follow the guidelines given by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 to mitigate the risk. Ideally, they should opt for free alternatives infrastructure.
Myth: We need more water to produce more food.
Fact: We are already depleted of 54% of accessible fresh water sources in the world, only the agricultural sector uses 70%. Of this 70%, more than half is spent on inefficient irrigation methods. In countries where some of the crops are the "more thirsty" in the world – cotton, rice and sugar – new agriculture practices ensure that scarce water resources are used more productively.
In South Africa, for example, good practices among small farmers cooperatives, farm planning and drip irrigation systems have seen productivity rise significantly reducing water erosion and runoff pollution. In India, farmers have developed a rice irrigation system so effective that their performance has increased between 20-50%, using much less water in the atmosphere. We should be given high priority to use water more wisely, support to farmers and irrigation managers to implement practices to produce more food with less water.
Myth: The freshwater habitat is at the expense of retaining people.
Fact: WWF case studies in Colombia, Brazil, China and South Africa show an increase in income, employment and performance of fisheries projects in conjunction with conservation of natural communities. More than one third of the 100 largest cities in the world – including New York, Jakarta, Tokyo, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Nairobi and Melbourne – are completely dependent on forests or semi-protected areas to capture almost all water they consume. Well-managed natural forests minimize the risk of landslides, erosion and sedimentation. Also substantially improve water purity by filtering pollutants such as pesticides, and in some cases capture and accumulate water. Countries would do well to adopt a strategy to protect the forest mantle, it would be a big cost savings in water supply, improving the health of local populations.
Knowing some of the facts, one would think that governments would be responsible to carry out expeditious cheaper and durable solutions in managing their water supplies. Sadly, many still believe the large infrastructure projects such as dams, produce results faster than efficient effort on a small scale, community-based. Governments have also failed to implement previous agreements on a national and global framework for sustainable water management.
Water is a finite resource, a resource that is quickly exhausted and cannot be sustained with grand projects. Rather, we must focus efforts on its fair distribution, the aquifer and restore wetlands, reduce pollution and sustainable management of fisheries. Conserving freshwater ecosystems is not a lofty goal preached by the environmental movement but a practical and vital for poverty eradication. The conservation of freshwater ecosystems can lead to drinking water, agriculture and fishing more effective for the poor.
Conservation of rivers and wetlands should be a priority for governments seeking to ensure the water and reduce poverty. The Fourth World Water Forum would be important if governments focus on the missing: good management of rivers, wetlands and other bodies of freshwater as a source of water for people and nature.
Jamie Pittock is Director of the Freshwater WWF International, Gland, Switzerland
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