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Water crunch looms without action on waste: UN report
by Staff Writers
Marseille, France (AFP) March 12, 2012

World Water Forum opens to warnings of scarcity, waste
Marseille, France (AFP) March 12, 2012 - A global meeting on water opened in France on Monday with demands to bring clean water and sanitation to billions in need and to address worsening scarcity and waste.

"The challenges are huge and the problems are deep-rooted," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said as he opened the sixth World Water Forum in the southern city of Marseille.

"The number of human beings who have no access to clean water is in the billions. Each year, we mourn millions of dead from the health risks that this causes. This situation is not acceptable -- the world community must rise and tackle it."

The World Water Forum, held every three years, gathers policymakers, corporations and NGOs.

As many as 20,000 participants from 140 countries are expected for the six-day event, including scores of ministers for the environment and water from developing countries and several heads of state from francophone Africa.

Separately, a massive UN report said water problems in many parts of the world were chronic and without a crackdown on waste would worsen as demand for food rises and climate change intensifies.

"Pressures on freshwater are rising, from the expanding needs of agriculture, food production and energy consumption to pollution and the weaknesses of water management," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a foreword to the report.

"Climate change is a real and growing threat. Without good planning and adaptation, hundreds of millions of people are at risk of hunger, disease, energy shortages and poverty."

Demand for food will increase by some 70 percent by 2050, which will lead to a nearly 20 percent increase in global agricultural water consumption, the UN's Fourth World Water Development Report said.

Already, more than 2.5 billion people are in need of decent sanitation and nearly one in 10 has yet to gain access to "improved" drinking water, as defined under the UN's 2015 development goals.

The opening ceremony included a speech by a young brother and sister from the parched Sahel country of Mali, who begged the June "Rio plus 20" summit to make water a priority.

"Promise us that tomorrow will be different," they said. "When the water arrives we can laugh and you can weep tears of joy."

Water problems in many parts of the world are chronic and without a crackdown on waste will worsen as demand for food rises and climate change intensifies, the UN warned on Sunday.

Issued on the eve of a six-day gathering on world water issues, the United Nations, in a massive report, said many daunting challenges lie ahead.

They include providing clean water and sanitation to the poor, feeding a world population set to rise from seven billion to nine billion by 2050 and coping with the impact of global warming.

"Pressures on freshwater are rising, from the expanding needs of agriculture, food production and energy consumption to pollution and the weaknesses of water management," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in the report.

"Climate change is a real and growing threat. Without good planning and adaptation, hundreds of millions of people are at risk of hunger, disease, energy shortages and poverty."

The World Water Development Report is issued every three years to coincide with the World Water Forum, opening in this southern French city on Monday.

Written by experts in hydrology, economics and social issues under the aegis of UNESCO, it aims to be the world's reference manual for water.

The document, the fourth in the series, made these points:

-- Population growth and a shift to more meat-intensive diet will drive up demand for food by some 70 percent by 2050. Using current methods, this will lead to a nearly 20 percent increase in global agricultural water consumption.

Farming today accounts for around 70 percent of water use, ranging from 44 percent in rich countries to more than 90 percent in least developed economies.

-- Abstraction of aquifers has at least tripled in the past 50 years, supplying nearly half of all drinking water today. "In some hotspots, the availability of non-renewable groundwater resources has reached critical limits," says the report.

An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing rock or soil.

The report calls for an overhaul in water management and a massive effort to curb waste. Better irrigation systems, less thirsty crops and the use of "grey," meaning used, water to flush toilets are among the options.

-- The bill for coping with climate-induced water problems will be between 13.7 billion and 19.2 billion dollars annually between 2020 and 2050. This is based on the assumption UN climate talks limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

"The current areas with water stress will be suffering more," said Olcay Unver, who coordinated the report, pointing as examples to the Middle East, South Asia and the southwestern United States.

-- About 2.5 billion people have no access to decent sanitation, a figure meaning that a key Millennium Development Goal for 2015 is likely to be missed. In contrast, UN estimates last week said a goal for improving access to clean water would be met.

The report places the spotlight on competition for water between cities, farmers and ecosystems, and between countries as well. An estimated 148 states have international water basins within their territory and 21 countries lie entirely within them.

Even so, there seems no major risk of water wars, Unver told journalists in Paris last week. "Countries have shown great success in cooperating in water resources than fighting over them."

Emerging as a worrying phenomenon is the acquisition of farmland in Africa by western economies, Middle Eastern states and the emerging giants China and India to provide food or biofuels.

The risk is of simply transferring a wasteful water "footprint" elsewhere, possibly at the expense of a local ecosystem.

"The amount of water required for biofuel plantation could be particularly devastating to regions such as West Africa, where water is already scarce," says the report.

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UN Water Report: regional highlights
Marseille, France (AFP) March 12, 2012 - Following are regional excerpts from the UN's Fourth World Water Development Report, released on Sunday.

The assessment is issued every three years, coinciding with the World Water Forum, which opens in Marseille on Sunday.


Sub-Saharan Africa's many water problems are rooted in poor infrastructure, inadequate management and demographic growth. Gains in agricultural production, of two percent annually, are being outstripped by a three-percent yearly increase in population.

Access to piped drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa remains poor, at barely 60 percent overall. In 2008, 224 million people in the region practised open defecation, up from 188 million in 1990. Drought is the dominant climate risk, but floods too are highly destructive.


For Europe, the big problem is water stress induced by climate change for the centre and southern part of the continent. Citing the UN's climate panel, the report says water scarcity will affect 44 million Europeans by the 2070s, compared with 16 million today.

For North America, a worry is waste, for Americans and Canadians are the highest per-capita water users in the world. In arid and semi-arid areas, there is growing concern for water supply as cities and farmers stake their claims.


Around 1.9 billion people lack decent sanitation, despite the region's rise to prosperity. Pollution from industry, farms and households is a major problem. Less than a fifth of wastewater is treated before being discharged back into rivers or lakes or back into the ground.

"Extremes of flood and drought are expected to increase in both magnitude and intensity as a result of climate change," the report warns.

The report calls for realistic water pricing to attack waste, a strategy for which it singles out Singapore for praise, and for the new cities sprouting in Asia to be "water-sensitive" from the start.


The region has made good headway in boosting access to cleaner water and decent sanitation despite areas of entrenched poverty and a rural exodus.

The report notes "serious geopolitical problems" arising from cross-border disputes over water, typically involving hydro power.

On the plus side, the region has developed a good knowledge base for dealing with climate-inflicted drought and flood. The skills derived from dealing with periodic El Nino/La Nina weather cycles.


Hot and arid, with a fast-growing population, the region is prey to chronic water stress. "At least 12 Arab countries suffer from acute water scarcity with less than 500 cubic metres [17,657 cu. feet] of renewable water resources available per capita per year," according to the report.

It says pumping water "is increasingly expensive and unsustainable" as aquifers -- underground layers of water-bearing rock or soil -- are drawn down.

Insecurity over water has stoked bouts of tension among countries that share rivers and groundwater, it adds.

The region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as even small changes in rainfall patterns can have "dramatic" impacts on water availability.


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UN scientists warn of increased groundwater demands due to climate change
San Francisco CA (SPX) Mar 12, 2012
Climate change has been studied extensively, but a new body of research guided by a San Francisco State University hydrologist looks beneath the surface of the phenomenon and finds that climate change will put particular strain on one of our most important natural resources: groundwater. SF State Assistant Professor of Geosciences Jason Gurdak says that as precipitation becomes less freque ... read more

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