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40% of World's Population Faces Water Shortages

NEW YORK, New York, August 14, 2002 (ENS) - Global water use has increased six-fold over the last century, twice the rate of population growth, and agriculture represents 70 percent of this consumption, the United Nations reports in advance of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). People across the world are dying from hunger as drought shrivels crops again this year.

The report, "Global Challenge, Global Opportunity," underscores the need for greatly increased efforts to support sustainable development to better manage global resources.

At present, 40 percent of the world's population faces water shortages, and water is one of the five key issues earmarked by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as central to the negotiations at the two week summit which opens in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 26.

The other four key issues are all linked in some way with water: energy, agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and human health.

  "'Global Challenge, Global Opportunity' highlights the choice we face between two futures," said Nitin Desai, secretary-general of World Summit on Sustainable Development at the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, which published the report.

"If we do nothing to change our current indiscriminate patterns of development, we will compromise the long term security of the Earth and its people," Desai said.

Despite some recent improvements in the field of water and sanitation, one billion people still lack access to safe drinking water. By 2025, half of the world's population - 3.5 billion people - will face serious water shortages, particularly in North Africa and West Asia, as groundwater supplies are consumed faster than they can be replenished, the UN reports.

"At Johannesburg," said Desai, "we have an opportunity to build a more secure future, by embracing a more sustainable form of development that will improve lives today, and build a better world for our children and grandchildren."

The greatest drain on the world's fresh water supplies is inefficient agricultural irrigation systems, which lose about 60 percent of the water they transport, according to the new study.

The expansion of agricultural lands is the cause of almost all global deforestation and the single greatest threat to biodiversity and ecosystems, the UN says.

  For much of Africa, gripped by drought, access to sanitation and water delivery facilities will need to be tripled to reduce by half the number of people without access to both clean water and adequate sanitation by 2015, a Millennium Development Goal.

WWF, the conservation organization, today issued a study providing this estimate and calling for better management of rivers and the lands that drain into them, not just more infrastructure, as the only path to sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Africa.

"Freshwater Trends and Projections: Focus on Africa," says Africa has experienced the largest population rise between 1990 and 2000 of any region, but the continent still has the lowest total water supply coverage of anywhere in the world.

"Even the loftiest, most well meaning goals for water access and sanitation will remain insignificant if investment in the health of rivers as the source of water for people and nature continues to be ignored," said Jamie Pittock, director of WWF's Living Waters Programme.

"Sustainability has hardly been addressed to the degree needed since the last Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago," Pittock said.

The Indian subcontinent too, is gripped by the worst drought in many years. The drought situation persists in 12 of India's 29 states, and the Indian government indicated on August 8 that almost the entire country was hit by drought, except for the flooded northeastern districts of India.

The recovery of some crops could only be possible if it rains across India before mid-August. Industry groups fear a serious recession and predict the drought could take one percentage point off annual economic growth in the current fiscal year. As a result of scanty rainfall, the Indian Power Ministry fears inevitable power cuts as hydroelectricity generation is affected.

  Fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions continued to rise in the 1990s, particularly in Asia and in North America, the new UN report confirms. Signs of climate change linked to global warming are also more apparent - such as the increase in frequency and intensity of droughts in parts of Asia and Africa. This is particularly true for the summit's host country, South Africa, which, along with several neighbouring countries, is currently experiencing severe drought.

At the same time, millions of people in southern Africa continue to face extreme food shortages. The aid agency Oxfam says the primary cause of the current food shortage in Malawi is the regional phenomenon of cyclical drought combined with sporadic flooding. This has led to 3.2 million people having insufficient food to eat and many are already reaching a stage of near destitution.

In Zambia, four million people have insufficient food and 2.3 million people are in immediate need of food aid. In Zimbabwe, drought and political upheaval has reduced food supplies for nearly half the country's population.

Half a million pastoralists in the Afar region of Ethiopia are suffering from a severe drought and need international assistance, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said August 5. Cattle and camels have started dying in the region, where the situation has been aggravated by recent fighting over grazing land and water between population groups, forcing hundreds of people to leave their home areas.

Demand for food is rising as the world population grows, and the capacity of food production to keep pace is diminishing, especially in developing countries.

"A top priority at the Summit is the need to agree on policies and programs that improve agricultural yields in order to meet our long term food needs," said Desai.

  "Equally pressing is the goal of expanding sustainable agricultural practices, including the introduction of efficient irrigation systems. At Johannesburg, a new initiative will be launched by the Food and Agriculture Organization involving various governments and NGOs, with the aim of stimulating these advances in the way we produce food."

There is some good news in the UN's "Global Challenge, Global Opportunity" report. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation improved gradually in the 1990s, and the goal of a 50 percent reduction in child mortality due to diarrhoeal diseases, adopted at the World Summit for Children in 1990, has been achieved, with child deaths decreasing from 3.3 million in 1990 to 1.7 million in 1999.

Some evidence of sustainability is emerging in strategically important areas around the world. Two percent of forests worldwide have now been certified for sustainable logging practices. Nature reserves, parks and sanctuaries are expanding, and now amount to five percent of total land mass in Europe, and 11 percent in North America, safeguarding the fresh water supply, and providing a basis for the rapidly growing global eco-tourism industry.

"Johannesburg seeks to build on the advances at Doha and Monterrey by arriving at a consensus on how the international community's increased funding for development should actually be deployed," said Desai. "Global living standards will only be improved now and in the long term if these resources are allocated on a genuinely sustainable basis."

"World leaders must come to Johannesburg ready to embrace a new approach to global development, and most importantly," Desai said, "to support this goal with concrete commitments."

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