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Great Lakes Article:

Wars Over Water are Rising Issue- UN


Jonathan Katzenellenbogen
Johannesburg

NEARLY half the world's population will experience critical water shortages by 2025, according to the United Nations (UN). Areas of SA are highly likely to be among those facing increasingly frequent water shortages. Wars over access to water are a rising possibility in this century.

What makes the water issue particularly urgent is that demand for water will grow increasingly fast as larger areas are placed under crops and economic development. The strong possibility that the world is experiencing climate change also adds to this urgency.

How to deal with water shortages is in the forefront of the battle between environmental activists on the one hand and governments and construction firms on the other. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development activists will be continuing their campaign to halt dam construction, while many governments are outraged about a vocal minority thwarting their plans.

The controversy over water in the halls of the Sandton Convention Centre, where world leaders will meet, will be tame when compared to the storm that environmentalists intend to build up on the outside.

One of the UN's eight millennium development goals is to halve the proportion of people without "sustainable" access to safe drinking water by 2015. How to ensure this happens is one of the big issues of the summit.

Much of the text on this is already agreed, but one of the unresolved issues in the implementation plan is whether the goal on water will be extended to cover sanitation. The risks posed by water-borne diseases in the absence of sanitation facilities means the two goals are closely related.

US negotiators have been resisting the extension of goals to include sanitation due to the financial commitment this would entail. However, insiders say the US is highly likely to agree to this extension. Agreement on this could give the UN a chance to show that in one key area the world development agenda has been advanced in Johannesburg.

But the UN has said Johannesburg will not be about words alone, but implementation. A number of projects and funding initiatives are likely to be unveiled at the Waterdome side event to the summit. But implementation is always harder, as SA has experienced in its water programme.

Since the 1994 elections government has provided easy access to water to 7-million people, but extending this to a further 7million and ensuring this progress is sustainable is one of SA's foremost implementation challenges. In SA, access to water is defined as 25 litres a person daily, within a distance of 200m from where they live.

Although SA's feat far exceeds the UN millennium goal on water supply, severe constraints on local government capacity make a more rapid expansion difficult says the water affairs department.

For some of those who have only recently been given ready access to water, their gains are under threat as the number of cut-offs by municipalities for nonpayment rise, says Liane Greef of the Environmental Monitoring Group. Greef is programme manager for Water Justice in southern Africa.

Those who have their water supply cut off also automatically forfeit their right to 6000 free litres of water for a family a month under SA's "water for all" policy. In the face of continued increases in unemployment, payment for water and other utilities has the potential to fast undo government's high profile feats in delivery since 1994.

It is also the way of ensuring sufficient water supply and its management that will increasingly become a political battleground in SA. Water Affairs director-general Mike Muller says SA is near the end of its dam-building programme. However, there are big projects proposed elsewhere in southern Africa that could possibly be halted by activists who could bring pressure on funding agencies such as the World Bank.

Greef says her group will campaign during the summit against the proposed Skuifraam Dam which would be built near Franschhoek to supply additional water to Cape Town.

Rather than rely on new dam construction, the city should ensure that water is used wisely at all times rather than only in dry spells, Greef says.

Another battleground for her group is over the privatisation of water supply, she says. Water supply, she insists, is best handled in the public interest by accountable government.

There is increasing hope from advances in technology to deal with water shortages. It is agricultural production which takes up about 90% of water consumed for human purposes, says the UN.

To lower agricultural demand for water the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute is researching ways of obtaining "more crop per drop" through the development of drought resistant crops, as well as through better water management techniques.

One of the institute's research sites is the Limpopo River basin. According to the institute's director-general, Frank Rijsbereman, rice growers in China use a quarter of the water a ton of produce to those in SA.

The institute hopes the "green revolution" in crop productivity will soon be matched by the "blue revolution" in raising water productivity in agriculture.

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