The Global Water Shortage: Entrenched Poverty for the masses

Rachel Auld,

Here in the UK, tap water is of the highest quality in the world. Between 15-20% of the water used worldwide is not for domestic consumption but rather for export.

It is a common shared belief that water is a universal resource to which we all have an equal right and a responsibility to protect.  Clean water and sanitation can make or break human development.  The right to water is enshrined in the right to life and dignity as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It defies belief that the most abundant compound on Earth, covering about 70 per cent of the surface of the planet, can be in such short supply – but such is the reality of water

“The human right to water” declares the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.  These five core attributes represent the foundations for water security, yet they are widely violated.

All governments should go beyond vague constitutional principles to enshrine the human right to water in enabling legislation.

Many African countries supply us, the developed world, with fresh fruit and vegetables, yet they don’t even have enough fresh water for personal and domestic use.  2.2 million people die each year from a water related disease; this is almost the entire population of Los Angeles. 780 million people lack access to clean water – that’s more than twice the US population.

Water in Accra, Ghana, costs three times as much as in New York.  1.1 billion people use just five liters of unsafe water a day, yet the average person in the UK uses 150 litres of water a day with much domestic use being the flushing of toilets! It would be hard to imagine for many UK citizens, how 187 million people use surface water as their main income of water, which they collect daily from ponds, rivers and lakes.

Africa has the lowest total of clean supplied water in the world, even though there is enough water in Africa’s rivers for everyone on earth. The global crisis in water consigns large segments of humanity to lives in poverty and insecurity.

While the demand for water is rising rapidly the supply of drinking water is not keeping pace, some feel it is even shrinking. Water intensive agriculture, population growth, industrial growths are depleting the historic accumulated fresh water supply.  Developing countries need to spend up to $58bn more each year to meet the Millennium Development Goal targets on water and sanitation.

So why is water so precious to use?  People kill each other over diamonds; countries go to war over oil. But the world’s most expensive commodities are worth nothing in the absence of water. Fresh water is essential for life, with no substitute. Although mostly unpriced, it is the most valuable commodity in the world. Nature has decreed that the supply of water is fixed. Meanwhile demand rises inexorably as the world’s population increases and enriches itself. Homes, factories and offices are sucking up ever more water. But it is the planet’s growing need for food (and the water involved in producing crops and meat) that matters most. Farming accounts for 70% of withdrawals.

The private water sector is larger than many people think, with thousands of businesses working every day to implement government policies.  Businesses have played an important role in helping to improve access to safe water for many people over the last decade or more. Given the right conditions, that role could, and should, continue to make a significant contribution.

Could the next big war in the world be over water?

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