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UN forum told one billion lives threatened by bad water
Associated Foreign Press

DUSHANBE (AFP) - Nearly one billion people -- or one in every six people in the world -- lack access to safe drinking water and the developed world must understand this threat, a UN-sponsored forum heard.

Delegates from some 50 underdeveloped nations gathered in this isolated former Soviet Central Asian republic to decide how the problem of the "year of fresh water," so designated by the United Nations, could be resolved.

The host, President Emomali Rakhmonov of landlocked Tajikistan, raised the alarm by noting that the Aral Sea -- drying up since the Soviet era -- has left a toxic wasteland threatening some three million local residents and "that could "cause climate change over a vast territory."

"Today more than one billion people the world over lack access to safe drinking water," Rakhmonov told delegates from around 50 countries.

"All over the world both the quantity and quality of safe water are decreasing as a result of pollution, over-consumption and mismanagement," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a written message to the conference:

"Each year more than two million children die from water-borne diseases."

Clouds of pesticide-laden salt continue to be blown across Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from the Aral Sea.

"It has become quite evident that either single-handedly or with the support of all Central Asian states, Tajikistan will not be able to deal with the threat of a humanitarian and ecological disaster," the Tajik president warned.

But critics doubt Central Asian leaders' commitment to cooperating on the water issue.

For some participants it remained doubtful whether the usually fractious Central Asian leaders are prepared to pay more than lip service to the need to consult affected residents or cooperate between the countries by sharing information and coordinating the release of water from dams.

"They are at the very beginning stages at best," Margaret Catley-Carlson, chair of the Global Water Partnership water management reform organization, told AFP.

There are also worries that new demand for Central Asian water could come from neighboring war-torn Afghanistan as it attempts to develop its northern agricultural sector.

Other delegates were keen to boost cooperation in river basins shared by countries elsewhere such as the water-scarce Middle East, where the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein has renewed debate over the Euphrates River.

Already severely short of fresh water, the members of the UN's western Asia region such as Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq can expect their renewable fresh water reserves to drop by half by 2025, Mervat Tallawy, executive secretary of the UN's economic and social commission for western Asia, said.

The UN's new World Water Development Report estimates that some 2.2 million people around the world died due to water-related diseases last year.

Partly due to global warming, well over two billion people will be suffering from water scarcity by the middle of this century, the report warns.

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