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Earth summit: Water Crisis Kills 20,000 Children/Day


JOHANNESBURG - Water security will be a key issue at the U.N.'s World Summit on Sustainable Development under way in Johannesburg until September 4. A follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, it aims to map out a concrete set of action plans to reduce global poverty and the North/South income gap in a sustainable way without inflicting irreparable damage to the environment.

Its guide is the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) laid out in the U.N.'s 2000 Millennium Declaration. It resolved to halve, by 2015 the proportion of people who are unable to reach, or to afford, safe drinking water. Following are some facts and figures on the state of the world's water supplies and the United Nation's goals regarding water.

ACCESS TO WATER: According to the United Nations' 2002 Human Development Report, 2.4 billion people in the developing world lack access to basic sanitation and 1.1 billion have no access to clean drinking water.

By some estimates, preventable water-related diseases kill 20,000 children every day in the developing world.

COSTS: The World Bank says to meet the MDG's development goals, around 300,000 people per day will have to be connected to water systems over the next 10 years. The estimated price tag is $25 billion a year.

CONSUMPTION: According to the United Nations, the world's population tripled in the 20th century, leading to a six-fold increase in the use of water resources. The three largest water users in global terms are: agriculture, 67 percent; industry, 19 percent; and municipal/residential, 9 percent.

SUPPLY: Freshwater ecosystems cover less than one percent of the Earth's surface. Ice - mostly in the form of glaciers - comprises 69 percent of the world's freshwater supplies and groundwater is 30 percent. Wetlands, which include marshes and swamps, comprise 0.3 percent, lakes 0.3 percent, and rivers 0.06 percent. However, many experts argue the wells are not about to run dry. They say on a global level we have enough water but must use it more wisely and attempt to address uneven distribution around the globe which is related partly to different rainfall patterns.

PROBLEMS/ISSUES: The problems affecting the world's freshwater supplies are many, including pollution from industry, agriculture and untreated sewage. Poor infrastructure is another major issue. According to the WWF environmental group, 30 percent to 50 percent of water diverted for irrigation purposes is lost through leaking pipes and channels.

The World Bank says inefficiencies in infrastructure mean water that does not reach customers is wasted and ultimately not paid for. This can lead to infrastructure decay because of a lack of funding for maintenance and improvements. Tariffs are often kept low by politicians seeking to woo voters, leading many to advocate the privatisation of water services - 95 percent of municipal water services are publicly run - but this is controversial because of concerns that the very poor could be denied access as a result. The advocates of privatisation argue that services will improve at lower costs as a result because the contracted operators will have an incentive to improve their product.

DAMS: Dams have brought huge benefits to more than 140 countries but the social and environmental costs have often been high. Perhaps 40 million to 80 million people have been displaced globally by dam projects. Dams have damaged aquatic habitats and blocked migration routes for spawning fish species such as salmon. According to a 2000 report by the World Commission on Dams, China and India have half of the world's 45,000 dams. Dams account for 19 percent of electricity generated worldwide, and 24 countries generate more than 90 percent of their power from dams.

SPECIES AT RISK: According to the WWF, of the 10,000 species of freshwater fish that have been described, 20 percent are threatened or endangered because of pollution, habitat destruction, damming, over-fishing and the introduction or invasion of alien species.

The WWF says there have been 81 species of freshwater fish have become extinct over the past century. The major proportion of known extinctions resulted from the introduction of the huge Nile perch into Africa's Lake Victoria, which caused the loss of 50 endemic cichild species. But scientists say the state of knowledge about freshwater fish is incomplete so many species unknown to us may have become extinct already. In addition to fish, the WWF says four of the five species of river dolphin are at risk, two of the three manatee species, about 40 freshwater turtles and more than 400 types of freshwater crustacean.

FRESHWATER HOT SPOTS/CONTROVERSIES THE ARAL SEA: The land-locked Aral Sea, which straddles the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is actually salt, but its tragedy highlights the potentially disastrous consequences of poor freshwater use. In the 1960s, Soviet planners built a network of canals to divert the waters of the rivers that fed the sea to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

As a result, the sea's life source was reduced to a trickle, and it is shrinking and dying as a result. Once the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has shrunk so much that it is now split into two separate bodies of water - the northern or little Aral Sea and a larger southern body.

Aralsk, once a thriving port town, is now 95 kilometres (60 miles) from the coast.

CHINA/THREE GORGES DAM: China's Three Gorges Dam project, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, was started in 1993 and is expected to be completed by 2009. The project has faced both domestic and local criticism.

More than one million villagers along the Yangtze river are being resettled to make way for the project and numerous ancient relics will be submerged. Of China's 668 cities, 400 are short of water. Hundreds of millions of people drink contaminated water and farmers have rioted in the countryside over precious supplies.

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