STOCKHOLM - At a weeklong international water conference in the Swedish capital last week, the warning signs were ominous: an increasingly overpopulated world is heading for a food, fuel and water crisis. But the spreading turmoil is also beset with plenty of paradoxes.
As Lars Thunell, chief executive officer of the International Finance Corporation, an affiliate of the World Bank, points out: "People and fresh water are often not in the same place." The Amazon has 15 percent of the earth's fresh water, but only one percent of the earth's population.
"We are on a dangerous path. Water itself is at risk because we tend to overuse it," he warns. The crisis is likely to be aggravated by a rash of problems: scarcities, over-consumption, wastage, the devastating impact of climate change and an increase in the world population, from the current 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion people by 2050.
|This photo taken on December 6, 2007 shows an Iraqi boy drinking water from a water pipe crossing an uncovered sewage canal in the area of Fdailiyah, southeast of Baghdad. Some 2,500 experts met in Stockholm this week to put the spotlight on one of the most pressing issues, that of water resources, at World Water Week. AFP
At present, less than a billion people have no access to clean drinking water and over 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. The UN is grappling with both problems in an attempt to narrow the gap -- or at least reduce the numbers by 50 percent by 2015. That's the deadline to achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which also include a reduction of 50 percent in the number of people living in the razor edge of poverty and starvation.
A second paradox is that millions of people will be flooded out of their homes each year because of too much of water when climate change will trigger a rise in sea levels inundating low lying countries such as the Maldives and Marshal Islands.
Professor Jan Lundqvist of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) points out a third paradox: over-consumption amidst scarcities. "Obesity is a much bigger problem than undernourishment," he complains. Currently, there are an estimated 850 million people worldwide who suffer from hunger and starvation daily, compared with over 1.2 billion people who are overweight and obese.
A study titled 'Saving Water' released here argues that while the risk of under-nourishment is reduced with an increasing supply of food -- provided access is ensured -- the risk of over eating and wastage is also likely to increase when food becomes more abundant in some societies.
In the United States, as much as 30 percent of food products, worth some 48.3 billion dollars, is thrown away annually just by households alone. But wasted food is also wasted water because of the large quantum of water that goes into the cultivation and processing of food, argues the study co-authored by SIWI, along with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Sri Lanka.
Professor John Anthony Allan of King's College, London, the winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize, is the author of a concept called "virtual water" where he argues that people consume water not only when they drink it or take a shower but also when they consume food products. The virtual water concept measures water embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products-- from the field and the factory to the dinner table.
A cup of coffee, for example, accounts for about 140 litres of water that is used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans. One single hamburger accounts for an estimated 2,400 litres of water; one kilogramme of beef consumes 15,000 litres of water; a slice of white bread takes in 40 litres of water; and one kilogramme of cheese absorbs 5,000 litres of water.
The figures for the average consumer are even more revealing. An average American, very much entrenched in a heavily consumer oriented society, uses about 380 litres of water per day compared with about 150-190 litres by the average European. In contrast, the average per capita consumption in the developing world is a measly 15 litres.
Meanwhile, a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that while each person in Britain drinks, hoses, flushes and washes their way through around 150 litres of water a day, they consume about 30 times as much in "virtual water" embedded in food, clothes and other items -- the equivalent of about 58 bathtubs full of water every day.
Titled 'UK Water Footprint: The impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources', the study points out that Britain is the world's sixth largest importer of water. "Only 38 percent of UK's total water use comes from its own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves," Stuart Orr, WWF-UK's water footprint expert said. The rest, he said, is taken from water bodies in many countries across the world to irrigate and process food and fibre crops that people in Britain subsequently consume.
He said that WWF is encouraging some of the largest companies in the UK to evaluate their water foot prints, which assesses the amount of water a business uses both directly and indirectly through its supply chain. According to WWF, a single tomato from Morocco takes 13 litres of water to grow, while a shirt made from cotton grown in Pakistan or Uzbekistan soaks up 2,700 litres of water. Orr said most consumers aren't even aware that it takes massive amounts of water to grow the food and fibres consumed -- on top of what is used for drinking, washing and watering the lawn.
"Therefore, it is essential that business and government identify the areas that could potentially suffer water crises and develop solutions so the environment is not over exploited to the point that people and wildlife lose out," Orr added.