Viewed from space, ours is a blue planet: fully 70 per cent of its surface is water – but mostly in the sea. Just 2.5 per cent of all the world’s water is freshwater, and of that, almost 80 per cent is locked in ice caps and glaciers, and most of the rest is below ground, in soils and rocks. Just 1 per cent of all water on Earth is readily and easily available for our use – and for all the other creatures that share our world.
Several international conventions and agreements address a fundamental human right to water, most explicitly the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which asserts: ‘The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.’ To this end the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aim to: ‘halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.’
The absolute minimum amount of water needed for human survival is around 3 litres per person per day. But if you take account not just of drinking, but of sanitation and hygiene, that rises to around 50 litres per person per day.
But it is not just the direct provision of water that matters. Water is needed for food production too, and the MDGs also have the intention of ‘halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’. Over the past 50 years, farmers have done a remarkable job in feeding the world. The number of people going hungry today is almost the same as it was in the 1960s, despite the world population more than doubling. But much of this is the result of the extensive use of irrigation to increase yields. Today, agriculture extracts more water than any other sector.
But water is like so many other natural resources: limited. The amount of water within this planet’s hydrological cycle is more or less fixed. It circulates, but doesn’t increase. In all, there’s estimated to be 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water within that system, of which only about 14 million km3 are easily available to us as freshwater. No matter how many of us there are, that’s all we have to share. Nonetheless, because of rising human numbers, and our efforts to provide a decent standard of living to all, water withdrawals from rivers and underground reserves have increased by an average of 2.5–3 per cent a year since the 1940s.
Today, the waters of some of the world’s major rivers, including the Colorado in the USA and the Nile in Egypt, barely reach the sea. In Central Asia, by the end of the 20th century, the Aral Sea had shrunk by up to 80 per cent due to vast irrigation withdrawals from its feeder rivers to supply the cotton industry. In Africa, Lake Chad has diminished to around 10 per cent of its original size, largely due, according to UNEP, to human water use, including inefficient damming and irrigation methods. And several major urban areas – including Bangkok, Houston, Jakarta, Mexico City, Osaka, San Jose, Shanghai, Tokyo and Venice – are experiencing significant land subsidence caused by the draining of ground water.
The United Nations has designated 2013 as the International Year for Water Cooperation, recognizing that water issues, like so many environmental problems, show little regard for borders. You just have to think of the international waterways of Africa such as the Congo and Nile, Europe‘s Rhine and Danube, Asia’s Euphrates, Ganges and Mekong or Latin America’s mighty Amazon. All cross national borders, so whatever happens upstream has an impact on the lives and livelihoods of those living downstream.
The objective of this International Year (www.unwater.org/watercooperation 2013.html) is to raise awareness, not just of the challenges facing water management in light of the increasing demand for water access, allocation and services, but also of the potential for increased cooperation. The Year will highlight the history of successful water cooperation initiatives, as well as identify burning issues on water education, water diplomacy, transboundary water management, financing cooperation, national and international legal frameworks, and links with the MDGs. It will also provide an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum created at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), and to support the formulation of new objectives that will contribute towards developing water resources that are truly sustainable. And all this is in the shadow of climate change, which is already affecting the world’s water systems.