Water Crisis--Water, the 'Blue Gold'
by Ania Zalewski
Voiced by Steve Ember
Everyone in the world should have access to safe, clean
water. But according to statistics from the United Nations,
more than one billion people lack such access. Water and
its availability was a major topic at the World Summit on
Sustainable Development just concluded in Johannesburg.
Ania Zalewski writes in this Dateline
report that delegates said the glass was more half empty
than half full.
As the saying goes, "water, water, everywhere." Well, how
much water is there? The total water supply of the world
is estimated at 326 million cubic miles. A cubic mile of
water equals more than one trillion gallons! So, experts
say, there is plenty of water on our planet. But according
to the U.S. Geological Survey, only three tenths of one
percent of all the world's water is usable for human use.
Perhaps that's why water is increasingly being called 'blue
Dr. Peter Gleick, Director of the Pacific Institute, a private
environmental research center in Oakland, California says
that this is a real tragedy. "There are 2.4 billion people,
40 percent of the world's population without access to adequate
sanitation services," he said. "And that failure to meet
basic human needs for water leads to all sorts of terrible
things. Water-related diseases, loss of job time, loss of
educational opportunity. It's a real development tragedy."
Even though water
has emerged as a critical issue, it still remains a low
priority for most governments. That's the view of Margaret
Catley-Carlson, chair of the Global Water Partnership.
She questions the priorities on water issues determined
by international governments. "Why is water management
not more of a priority," she asks. "Why is it low in national
budgets? Why is it low in bilateral programs of donors?
Why is it low in the borrowing requirements and the borrowing
portfolios in developing countries?"
Other experts argue that there is an abundance of water
in the world. The problem is global delivery systems need
improvement. The Cato Institute's Senior Fellow in Environmental
Studies, Patrick J. Michaels, says that water problems are
closely related to poverty. "If you look at rich countries,
generally they don't have a lot of difficulties with their
water," he says. "Yes, there are local technologies that
can clean that up, I think that we are in substantial agreement
that this is an issue that is going to appear more and more
in the future, and will probably be best managed by nations
working with their localities rather than top down programs.
I think that these top down, large intervention programs
are what the United States feels probably won't work."
At the Johannesburg
Summit, the United States declared it would not sign water
agreements that are specific and binding on signatories.
Washington did however announce a proposal to spend $970
million by the year 2005 on three major initiatives, including
one that spends nearly $400 million to improve watershed
management. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans,
Science, and the Environment, John Turner stressed the
American proposals at the Summit. "I am proud that the
United States will join others in continuing as a world
leader in providing assistance in improving access to
water and sanitation, the United States can and will do
more," said John Turner.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the summit
on Wednesday and said that the United States wants to help
in development and stewardship of the world's environment.
But he added that the stewardship must be responsible and
any economic management must be sound. American environmental
activists at the summit, joined by those from Australia,
according to press reports, repeatedly booed and jeered
the secretary's comments. "The United States is taking action
to meet environmental challenges, including global climate
change. We are committed we are committed", he says.
13 people were
ejected from the summit and the session's chair, South
African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma called
the response, "totally unacceptable." The summit did pledge
to cut in half the proportion of people with access to
sanitation by 2015, and received commitments from the
European Union for a "Water for Life" initiative, and
more than $5 million in grants and loans by the Asia Development
Many of these commitments will be put into programs administered
by non-profit groups and NGOs, or non-governmental organizations.
The primary target remains Africa as Paul Sobiech, head
of Water for People, based in Colorado, explains. "If you
walk through any of the settlement areas around larger cities,
take for example Nairobi - you'll find human waste, almost
every step that you take," says Mr. Sobiech. "You couple
that out with the solid waste problem where there is no
municipal pick up and there you have just a public health
waste disaster waiting to happen."
groups are proposing a two-step solution, notes Paul Sobiech,
depending upon whether the problem is in a rural or urban
location. "We have several initiatives; in the rural settings
we have rather traditional community development approach
that integrates water sanitation and health or hygiene
education and we operate through local groups," he explains.
"And in the urban settings while our rural work is much
more around bricks, water pipes and tabs, in the urban
setting it's much more education, advocacy and sort of
building competency of these local groups so they have
voice in their decisions."
to water problems gaining popularity around the world
is privatization. Two French companies: Suez and Vivendi
Environment, supply water to 230 million people around
the globe, including U.S. cities like the southeastern
hub of Atlanta and urban centers in the Third World. While
privatization is touted by some as a solution to Third
World water needs, others oppose it, saying it pushes
the price of water beyond what poor people can afford.
Peter Gleick admits that privatization has a potential
to grow enormously because of the desperate need for water
in the developing world, but says that water is too important
to be left in purely private hands. "We are quite concerned
that certain aspects of water truly are public goods -
the protection of access to water for the poorest population
and protection of the environment and protection of water
quality - those are public responsibilities," he says.
"So we are somewhat worried that if we rush to privatization
of water systems without being very careful - some bad
things may happen."
Senior Associate with World Resources Institute, says
that even in some African countries, privatization in
the form of private-public partnerships, or PPPs, are
becoming popular. "The idea that a lot of governments
are pushing, and what a lot of NGOs say, is that you can
have what they call a private-public partnership, or PPPs,
which means that the supply of water is privatized," she
says. "It some cases it has actually proven to provide
better service and more reliable service to poor communities.
And they actually end up paying less for the water. Because
before, they would pay street vendors that would charge
them up to five times more for the water."
Other suggestions like conservation, irrigation, or desalination
have also been proposed for developing nations. Desalination
is expensive and usually works for countries which are close
to a sea or ocean. Massive construction projects, which
aid in irrigation and water delivery, like China's Three
Gorges Dam, set off a global debate about its environmental
and political impacts. Peter Gleick maintains that small
scale, local projects seem to work best and are most effective
in solving water problem. "We are also learning that smaller
projects, at the community level are often much more effective
at meeting human needs for water and that small scale village
kinds of projects are effective - the people understand
them, they know how to operate them, they have more responsibility
for them and they have far fewer of these very massive environmental
and social implications that some of these big projects
bring with them," says Peter Gleick.
to water problems were debated at the Earth summit, the
participants in Johannesburg agreed that action needs
to be taken. Some statistics suggest that since the Summit
began, more than 10,000 children may have died from water-borne
No matter whether
delegates said the international well is dry, full, or
somewhere inbetween, in the past week at Johannesburg,
the world learned the worth of water.