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World Water Week

August 21, 2011

The world runs on water - from agriculture and industry to the energy sector. World Water Week in Stockholm is dedicated to making sure there's enough of this precious resource to go around.

A stream of water flows into a person's cupped hand
As urban areas grow so, too, do the challenges of guaranteeing access to waterImage: Fotolia/Aramanda

By the year 2050, the United Nations estimates the global population will have grown to 9 billion people - and all of them will need water to live. But the problem is that supply is increasingly scarce.

For over two decades, the Stockholm International Water Institute has been holding a forum to discuss solutions to the world's water problems.

This year, some 2,500 experts from the political, economic, scientific and social sectors in both industrialized and developing countries, are expected to attend World Water Week.

The forum, which is being held from August 21 to 27, is focusing on the growing difficulties of securing water for the world's booming urban areas.

Unequal distribution, excessive consumption

Lack of supply isn't just a problem in cities. Professor Laszlo Somlyody from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics cited northern Africa, Israel and Jordan as just some of the places where physical scarcity is a serious issue. A former president of the International Water Association, Somlyody also pointed to the problem of "economic scarcity."

"Money is not there, (and) the economy is weak - mostly in the developing world - where it is estimated that about a billion people don't have safe drinking water supply," he added. "Another 2.4 billion people don't have sanitation."

These are serious problems to begin with, Somlyody said, but they are compounded by the effects of drought and flooding. All of this has major repercussions for supply.

"On the global level the per capita water availability, which is decreasing, is a serious problem," he said. "It is estimated that 50 percent of the available renewable water is extracted and used, eventually. So it is a very high ratio."

Two men stand in front of a dam in Jordan that is nearly empty
Somlyody says water is scarce in a number of regionsImage: KfW-Bildarchiv/Fotoagentur: photothek.net

Come together

Water supply and consumption used to be a field confined to its own special niche. Yet today, most experts agree that these subjects, as well as the related issue of sanitation, cannot be addressed in isolation.

Agriculture and industry are two sectors that compete for water resources; there is also substantial interplay between politics, economics and the social sector. That means that when it comes to water, different fields and stakeholders must come together to adopt a compound approach.

The European Commissioner for Environment, Janez Potocnik, stressed the need for coordinated action.

"Just take it from the point of food or agriculture production: In the southern countries of Europe, more than 80 percent of the water is used for agricultural purposes," he told Deutsche Welle. "So of course water is part of the issue."

And that issue, Potocnik added, will be one of the crucial problems the international community will have to address in the years to come.

A field is irrigated
Many sectors, including agriculture, rely on waterImage: BMU/H.-G. Oed

A united front

The solution will require an interdisciplinary strategy involving politics at all levels - as well as representatives from the environmental, agricultural and energy sectors, the Environment Commissioner said.

"Our lives are complex, so the policies which we create also need to be complex," he added. "They need to incorporate that way of thinking."

Stakeholders will also have to abandon another old way of thinking: that of putting one's own needs first.

"I think that's basically one of the problems of the past - that each one was trying to maximize his own or her own interest in the long term," Potocnik said. "But in the end, the side effects of that caused quite a lot of concerns in other areas."

The pollution of water supplies through agriculture, as well as the diversion of industrial waste into rivers, are just a few examples of the consequences this mentality can produce.

An Ethiopian girl fetches drinking water
Drought and flooding can exacerbate problems faced in areas where water is scarceImage: picture-alliance/Ton Koene

Fair prices, guaranteed access

Ultimately, those who use water resources must pay a fair price, said Jacqueline McGlade, the executive director of the European Environment Agency. In the future, she said, the price of food, energy and industrial goods must reflect the costs of water use. McGlade compared the issue of water consumption to the debate over cutting greenhouse gases.

"We grew our economy by chopping down the trees of Europe, and now we turn around to say: Now other parts of the world can't chop down their trees," she said.

"Similarly with water, we import rice from all over southeast Asia; it's their water that's being used to grow it. The question is: are we paying the right price for that?"

Yet covering the costs of water consumption will not be enough to secure supply.

"There's an ethical dimension, because people need access to water to live," McGlade said. "And that is the public good."

Author: Irene Quaile / arp
Editor: Nathan Witkop