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Avoiding a Future Without Water

With most of Europe suffering an extended heatwave, water to drink and to swim in has been a welcome relief. Now a symposium in Sweden has drawn global experts to debate ways of preventing a future with less water.

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Bringing water to where there is none.

Even under such brutally hot weather conditions as most of Europe has been experiencing over the past six weeks, when the tap is turned on, refreshing water gushes out. But for how much longer will those with easy access to clean water be able to take this most important utility for granted?

This, and many more pressing questions regarding the state of the world's water supplies are being debated at the World Water Week, an international symposium taken place in Sweden. Experts from more than 100 countries are gathered in Stockholm to address the problem of providing fresh water and sanitation for billions of people while protecting the earth's resources.

The task is as massive as it sounds. According to a report compiled by the United Nations, 1.4 billion people do not have access to safe water and 2.3 billion lack adequate sanitation. The effects of such a conditions speak for themselves: seven million people die each year of water-borne diseases, including 2.2 million children under the age of five and unfortunately many experts believe things are likely to get a lot worse before they begin to improve.

Water resources to drop by a third

Anhaltende Dürre

The report by the UN's World Water Assessment Program states the word's population will increase from six billion to an estimated 7.2 billion over the next 20 years, while the average supply of water per person is expected to drop by one third. Statistics point to billions people in 60 countries facing likely water shortages by 2050.

Among the many topics to be discussed in Stockholm, the 1,200 experts will be looking at the viability of goals set by the UN to halve the number of people with no access to safe water supplies or sanitation within the next 12 years. The symposium, which coincides with the UN International Year of Freshwater, and follows the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto in March, will also be the launch pad for a five-year study of the specific problems of the world's river basins, many of which are increasingly threatened by over-exploitation and pollution.

Affluent nations are wasteful offenders

Water: A Precious Resource

The extent of wasted water, mainly in affluent countries with highly concentrated areas of people and business, unfortunately has yet to shame governments into action. Few rich nations have so far implemented simple recycling and water saving projects.

In North America and Japan, daily water use per inhabitant totals 600 liters in residential areas while in Europe, each person uses between 250 and 350 liters. In contrast, an inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa averages just 10 to 20 liters per day.

"There are people in the semi-arid and arid areas who still have to walk about 10 hours looking for water. That situation is totally unacceptable," Martha Karua, Kenya's minister of water resources, told Reuters.

Huge cost to service Africa

The state of water supplies and infrastructure in Africa will be a major topic for the experts during the seven day event. Africans make up 13 percent of the total world population that lack adequate sanitation. In Kenya's capital Nairobi alone, it is estimated that the cost of rebuilding its crumbling water infrastructure with leaking pipes would be over $80 billion. To service the whole continent would mean a concerted funding effort by the world's affluent countries and a superhuman effort in terms of construction and maintenance.

The symposium will also be looking at ways to implement water projects in the worst affected areas of the world and look into how funds can be quickly diverted to address related problems once an infrastructure is in place. Providing safe drinking water and sanitation would save money from health budgets by freeing hospital beds from those suffering from water-borne diseases and prevent epidemics.

Safe water against SARS

"SARS developed in an area where there was virtually no sanitation available and no safe drinking water, and it affected both the people there but also people living in Canada and the world economy," said Peter Wilderer, professor at the Technical University of Munich who is attending World Water Week.

Wasserpreis für Peter A. Wilderer

Peter A. Wilderer.

Wilderer has studied recycling household water and said the technical innovations to cut water use dramatically are already there. "This is not an academic exercise. Many large industrial firms have realized this is the market of the future," he said.

Professor Wilderer will be awarded the 2003 Stockholm Water Prize by King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, for his 30 year career in the promotion and development of holistic, interdisciplinary research into sustainable water use and sanitation. He will be named the 2003 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate during a ceremony in the Stockholm City Hall on August 14.

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