2050 scenario depicts world with water problems | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 20.03.2012
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2050 scenario depicts world with water problems

The latest Environmental Outlook report by the OECD presents a bleak scenario, with rising sea levels swallowing cities and millions of people suffering water shortages. The report also present possible solutions.

Tarawa atoll, Kiribati

Kiribati may not exist in 25 years' time

Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and straddling the equator, the island nation of Kiribati may look idyllic at first glance. However, the turquoise sea that surrounds it and contributes to its beauty also threatens its very existence.

"When the waves reach our houses and villages, our people will have to go," Kiribati's president Anote Tong said at the beginning of March.

While climate change and the resulting rise in sea levels may be no more than a future concern for many countries, in Kiribati their effect is already being felt. The highest point in the country, which is made up of 32 atolls, is just three meters above sea level. If greenhouse gas emissions reach the levels predicted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its Environmental Outlook to 2050, temperatures could rise more than two degrees Celsius, surpassing the mark that climate scientists consider as the threshold to large-scale disaster. In this situation, no amount of protective barriers or mangroves could save a place like Kiribati.

Cities under water

According to some predictions, the islands could already be swallowed by the ocean in 25 years' time. For Heino von Meyer, head of the German office of the OECD, Kiribati's case is merely "the tip of the iceberg." The OECD Environmental Outlook concludes that many coastal regions are at risk of suffering a similar fate.

Lagos, Nigeria

Even more people will be living in cities by 2050

The report illustrates the consequences for people and nature if no active counter-measures are taken. It also shows that coastal cities will be the places with the highest population density in the future.

While in 1970 one third of the world's population lived in cities, today it is 50 percent.

"Based on this, you can predict that in 2050 two thirds of the world's population will live in large cities," said Meyer.

According to the report, the more megacities are located on the coast, the more dramatic the consequences of rising sea levels will be. And while today around 100 million to 200 million people die or become injured as a result of natural disasters each year, this figure could increase eightfold over the coming decades.

However, floods and natural disasters are not the only problems in this future scenario. Water shortages are also an issue. According to OECD projections, there will be less and less drinking water available in many regions, and the number of people experiencing what's known as water stress (extremely limited access to water) will increase from 1.3 billion to 3.9 billion.

A dirty river in Bangladesh

There will be less clean drinking water available in the future

"In 2050, 40 percent of the world's population will be living in regions of water stress if more calculated measures aren't taken to control its use," said von Meyer.

Countries like Korea, Japan, US, Mexico and Turkey are especially affected by water shortages. But instead of reducing water consumption, OECD researchers predict an increase in water usage by more than 50 percent by 2050. This will be caused by increased water usage in the industrial sector, electricity generation and private households.

Greater demand for water also means more competition for clean water. The OECD report anticipates a significant increase in groundwater pollution and a decrease in the quality of surface water, especially in northern and southern Africa and southern and central Asia. By 2050, one fifth of the world's inland waterways could be contaminated by algae growth.

The researchers fear that the unrelenting population growth could negate all progress in the area of water supply and sewage disposal. They predict that by 2050 at least 1.4 billion people will have to live with insufficient water supply and sanitation.

"Especially developing countries need assistance in establishing water management systems, both technologically and financially," said von Meyer.

A preventable disaster?

To combat water stress in the long term, the OECD report proposes several political solutions.

Heino von Meyer

Von Meyer believes in tighter water usage regulations

"If we don't put a price on water, it will not be dealt with in a sensible and efficient way," said von Meyer, referring to one of the report's main conclusions. After all, he said, the right to water and sanitation is one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

To prevent future conflicts, the OECD suggests the introduction of water taxes. For example, a certain amount per day could be free, with fees charged beyond that limit. The tax money could be used to offset the cost of private water tanks in areas without running water, or to improve water supply there.

Unfortunately, in Kiribati it is already too late for such measures. The country's president is currently negotiating the purchase of up to 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of land in Fiji, to where Kiribati's 100,000 residents could be relocated. He does not want to see his people made homeless by the rising Pacific Ocean.

Author: Richard Fuchs / ew
Editor: Holly Fox

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