August 11, 2003
World in drier straits
By Vanessa Houlder
Recent images of forestfires, withered crops and
depleted rivers are a vividillustration of the threats
posed by drought. But the parched conditions inflicted
by the northern hemisphere's current heatwaves will be
eclipsed by increasingly devastating water shortages in
the decades ahead, a conference will hear this week.
The Stockholm Water Symposium, which opens today , aims
to grapple with water scarcity, which the United Nations
believes will affect between 2bn and 7bn people by the
middle of the century. Over the next 20 years, the
average supply of water worldwide per person is expected
to drop by a third. Water scarcity or stress - or having
less than 1,700 cubic metres of water a person a year -
would affect about 40 per cent of the world population.
Chronic water shortage now affects 8 per cent.
The consequences will be most devastating for the
world's poor, says William Cosgrove, vice-president of
the World Water Council, a think-tank. "The minimum
consequences will be higher food prices and expensive
food imports for water-scarce countries that are
The main pressure is from population growth, coupled
with agricultural and industrial development. But water
supplies are also under threat from pollution and
climate change. Rainy seasons are expected to be more
intense and droughts longer.
"As global temperatures continue to warm due to climate
change, the number and intensity of extreme events might
increase," the World Meteorological Office warned last
The problems "need immediate attention in order to
satisfy future food demands for an exploding human
population and to minimise human and economic suffering
from catastrophic floods", according to the Stockholm
International Water Institute, organisers of the
The problems will be most acute for farmers, the biggest
consumers, accounting for 75 per cent of all water
withdrawn from rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.
Less water-intensive crops could be part of the
solution. Water-saving techniques are being developed
that could save up to a quarter of the water used to
grow rice, according to scientists at the Manila-based
International Rice Research Institute. Researchers are
also developing hardy breeds of tropical corn that could
increase harvests by 40 per cent in the tough
environments of the developing world.
Some arid countries - such as Morocco, Jordan, Israel
and Egypt - are deliberately reducing their water needs
through increasing food imports or growing less water-
intensive crops such as dates, grapes and olives.
Reducing water dependence by importing food - sometimes
described as "virtual water" - is an attractive
for wealthier countries. Jordan's population survives on
just 176 cubic metres of water per person a year, far
below the 1,000 cubic metres defined as absolute water
But this solution is not available to the poorest
countries or those such as India and China with large
populations, which believe the world market would be
unable to supply their food demands in a crisis.
Instead, India and China are contemplating ambitious
schemes to solve their looming water crises.
China, which faces drying river beds and a falling water
table in its northern grain-producing regions, is
launching a 50-year project to transfer water from the
Yangtze river in the south to revive the Yellow river in
the north. India's water engineers have come up with a
scheme to link rivers that drain the Himalayas with
those in the arid south.
These massive hydrological schemes - along with similar
proposals for Spain and central Africa - have aroused
intense controversy. Critics predict they will cause
ecological havoc and prove excessively costly. They
argue that water demand should be reduced through
conservation, the introduction of water charging and,
where possible, moving crop production away from arid
Few experts doubt that agriculture, estimated to waste
more than half of the water it uses, has scope for
But the bank is convinced better water management is not
enough. New infrastructure projects have a vital role to
play in protecting poor countries against water
shortages, it says.