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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Why world's taps are running dry
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

If you want to induce mental meltdown, the statistics of the worsening global water crisis are a surefire winner.

Woman with container on head     PA
Water-borne diseases already kill one child every eight seconds
Two-fifths of the world's people already face serious shortages, and water-borne diseases fill half its hospital beds.

People in rich countries use 10 times more water than those in poor ones.

The present is dire: the future looks so grim it must be entirely unmanageable.

Cut it how you will, the picture that emerges from today's data and tomorrow's forecasts is so complex and appalling it can leave you feeling powerless.

The world cannot increase its supply of fresh water: all it can do is change the way it uses it.

Its population is going to go on increasing for some time before there is any prospect it will stabilise.

Lion's share

And water-borne diseases already kill one child every eight seconds, as day follows day.

Click below for a statistical view of the world's water

Water is not running out: it is simply that there are steadily more of us to share it.

Climate change will also have an effect on water - just what effect, though, nobody can really say.

Some regions will become drier, some wetter. Deserts may well spread and rivers shrink, but floods will also become more frequent.

Most of the world's water is already inaccessible, or comes in the form of storms and hurricanes to the wrong places at the wrong times.

But there is certainly room for better management of water in agriculture - which currently takes ups 70% of the water we use.

Iraqi man drinks on battlefield   AP
Water shortage need not mean war
Drip irrigation, for example, minimises waste, as does low-pressure sprinklers and even simple earth walls to trap rainfall instead of letting it drain away too fast to be used.

Industry will usually make savings and cut costs wherever it can, and if it can spend less on water it will.

And us? One way to make consumers more responsible about water is to charge us for consuming it.

Running on empty

It works - up to a point. If water is expensive, those who can will economise on its use. But not everyone can.

Icelandic waterfall   BBC
Most freshwater is beyond reach
Privatising the water supply in South Africa means many people now receive 6,000 litres a month free, then pay for whatever they use beyond that. A monthly 6,000 litres means 50 litres a day for a family of four.

Fifty litres is the recommended basic domestic water requirement, and by no means every South African family has only four members.

That is one reason why the anti-privatisation movement has been so strong in South Africa.

There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for the harsh business of bringing water demand into line with supply. Nor is there an off-the-peg way of engineering our way out of the crisis.

Agreeing to disagree

Desalination may play a part, but it is energy-hungry and leaves a brine mountain for disposal. Dams will impound more water, but can easily bring more problems in their train.

Crates of water reach Umm Qasr   AP
Wartime water supplies: But millions go short daily
One of the disappointments of the World Water Forum in Japan in March 2002 was its focus on mega-engineering solutions like dams and pipelines, rather than using natural systems like forests and wetlands to conserve water.

There is some good news. Clean water and sanitation are getting to more and more people. But you may not have noticed, because the number of people benefiting was outstripped by the growth in human numbers.

Because the world's water suppy is finite, most of life's other necessities are finite as well. In China it takes 1,000 tonnes of water to grow one tonne of wheat.

If we do not learn to live within our aqueous means, we shall go hungry as well as thirsty.

A world where consumption was a means to survival, not an economic end in itself, would have enough water to go round. And polluted, inadequate water might kill its children a little more slowly.

Read a selection of your comments below.

If water is life, we must learn to treat it not as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder or as an entitlement to the privileged, but as an essential component of human existence. We must learn not only the methods and habits of sharing equitably, but also the technologies and values of protecting the environment that makes fresh water available to us.
Dennis Warner, Baghdad, Iraq

Water isn't the issue here
Quinton, Halifax, Canada
I'm tired of hearing how developed countries are to blame for every wrong in the world. I read how president Mugabe is tearing his country apart, and starving his people in Zimbabwe, while keeping the support of other African nations. India and Pakistan are spending huge amounts on nuclear weapons, just to show they can. Water isn't the issue here. What's required are responsible elected leaders who can at least pretend to be concerned for the welfare of their countries.
Quinton, Halifax, Canada

I must admit that awareness of this problem in developing countries is still very low. Governments and the private sector should put more efforts into this issue.
Amanda Goh, Malaysia

This wonderful resource is slowly being ruined
Jim Helm, Ord, NE, USA
One of the largest and purest aquifers in the world is right under our feet in Nebraska. However, this wonderful resource is slowly being ruined, mostly by folks who refuse to look past today.
Jim Helm, Ord, NE, USA

I do not wish to sound harsh, but when the today's developing countries claimed independence from the colonial powers they were in no position to manage their resources and economy. This has left the developed world in a destabilised state. Not only has there been serious famines and a population explosion, but now we are also faced with a water crisis. There will not be a war over water, partly because it is not the responsibility of a single country or a group of countries to supply the world with this resource. Water is abundant and infinite, it will never run out but it is the responsibility of the people and governments of individual countries to address the problem.
Ross Brown, Belfast, N. Ireland

Class warfare arguments ignore the basic fact that this is not a zero sum game
Suhas Joshi, Seattle, USA
The statement that the "rich countries use more than their fair share of water" completely ignores the facts. If a farmer in Nebraska chooses to use less water for his cows, that does not mean there is more water available for Africa! All it means is that there is more water flowing into the Atlantic via the Missouri. Class warfare arguments ignore the basic fact that this is not a zero sum game.
Suhas Joshi, Seattle, USA

If we help, we are 'neo-colonists' and if we don't then we are being accused of ignoring the world's problems. I think we should help ourselves before we help others. Charity begins at home. Britain has a trade deficit. Surely we should be thinking of how to stop losing money at home before we even think of giving it away to 'help' governments that usually just end up putting it in secret bank accounts. Will wars be fought over water? I doubt it.
Andy Ahn, Milton Keynes, England

The fact that the water crisis is a regional issue does not make it less of a problem. The problem is more obvious in the underdeveloped world, not only because of climatic and hydrological reasons, but also because of poor technology.
Diego García-Montúfar, Lima, Peru

The only way to consistently provide potable water to rural communities in the developing countries is through private sector initiatives
Neal Lang, Boca Raton, FL, United States

Most of the per capita water use in the U.S. is not personal, but industrial and agricultural. Ask yourself, if the U.S. cut back on its agricultural production, how many more millions of Africans would starve to death this year? The only way to consistently provide potable water to rural communities in the developing countries is through private sector initiatives. The best government can do is to provide the legal and economic framework to ensure a viable private sector, and to help people in subsistence villages by subsidising their daily water consumption.
Neal Lang, Boca Raton, FL, United States

To manage the world's resources, rich countries must help the poor. Hopefully the rich would not plunder the very resources that can help the poor. We need to educate both the rich and poor.
Benny Poh, Malaysia

Genetic science is the only real way to meet the water and food demands of the world
John Murray, Dallas, USA
Africa loses more water everyday because of pesticide and herbicide dependency, thanks to their (and Europe's) irrational fear of GM crops. Genetic science is the only real way to meet the water and food demands of the world.
John Murray, Dallas, USA

In Slovakia nobody worries about water. Perhaps it is because we do not have a shortage of it or perhaps it is because we are ignorant of the issue. I think that the technology to preserve and recycle water is available. California, Florida, Kuwait and other places have been doing it for a long time and it works. What makes me sad is seeing billions of dollars wasted on conflicts, yet not even one tenth of that amount can be found to save this planet and mankind.
Slavka, Slovakia

This is not a global issue, but a succession of local issues
Phil Keene, Birmingham, England
This is not a global issue, but a succession of local issues. Production of carbon dioxide is a global issue, because each reduction has an overall effect on the atmosphere. If I have a shower rather than a bath I will be reducing the amount of water I use, but not increasing the amount of water available to, say, a resident of Basra. It is also important to remember that a vast amount of safe, expensively treated water is being lost constantly from the outdated, leaky mains supply system in this country.
Phil Keene, Birmingham, England

I think the real problem is clearly shown in the pie-chart - agriculture. We need to start storing rain water runoff and change our consumption habits. But that is an unpopular thing to say, so no politician will say it. If we as societies demanded organic home grown vegetables we would be making a good start. Animals use vast resources, including water.
Justin, Norwich, England

Our water consumption, profligate as it may be, is not depriving anyone else
Robert Jones, Buckingham, England
"People in rich countries use ten times more water than those in poor ones", well, so what? We use the water that falls on us. If we didn't use it, it's not as if someone else will. Our water consumption, profligate as it may be, is not depriving anyone else, so why are we beating ourselves up over it?
Robert Jones, Buckingham, England

Water is abused in America and places where it is abundant. We do not put ourselves in the shoes of countries where there is no water. The only way to appreciate the importance of water is for those who have plenty of it to go without water for a few days. The rich have no idea how the lack of fresh water affects millions of human beings. We need to focus on new irrigation techniques and on education.
Maya Silliman, Rainier, WA, USA

We need expertise from countries like Holland to help us manage our water resources
Sieru Efrem, Ethiopia, now in Toronto
I come from one of the driest provinces in north Ethiopia, a country well known for its water shortages. I remember when I was 14, carrying a 20 litre water can on my head, filling it from a river some thirty minutes away. When I came to Canada, I was shocked by the extravagant use of water here. We need expertise from countries like Holland to help us manage our water resources naturally. That would be much more helpful than sending us food aid every year.
Sieru Efrem, Ethiopia, now in Toronto

There is an abundance of water. It is clear that we need to convert the salt water to drinking water efficiently. If a fraction of the effort and money that went into the development of nuclear fusion were spent on this problem, it would have been solved already. We need to focus on the basics.
Stuart, Isle of Wight

We need a proper water management system
Vasudharani, India/Germany
It's true that the rich developed countries use more water than the poorer ones. Back at home in India, we have such a scarcity that we recycle water, but in a country like Germany, they have lavish bath tubs which are absurd. We need a proper water management system which can take care of the whole issue.
Vasudharani, India/Germany

We waste water with every one of our uses. By recycling and improving use efficiency we could save a vast amount. The technology exists today. All we need is the will to do it.
Brian McConnell, Vancouver, Canada

Living for several months in drought-plagued New Mexico, I saw how resourceful people could be in managing their rationed water. Only 'grey', or used water, was used to water lawns and gardens. Having seen this, I wonder why so much precious fresh water is allowed to be used on lawns and golf courses, often in places where grass does not belong? I can't imagine it would be very difficult for us to start conserving on a large scale, using treated water only where necessary.
Greg, New Jersey, USA

Improving the supply of water creates a "catch 22" situation
Peter Bowen, England
Whilst I would not wish anyone to suffer, improving the supply of water creates a "catch 22" situation. The better the supply, the more people survive, increasing the demand for clean water. Perhaps our efforts, globally, would be better spent in keeping the number of people down and repairing the damage done to the environment.
Peter Bowen, England

I too do not understand why the people of the developing world look to the developed nations to solve their natural resources problems, including water. All human beings are endowed with the power of observation, analysis, formulation of possible solutions, the power to decide, and the ability to join with others in their community to act.
Evelyn, Aldan, PA, USA

Potable water is, like any other economic resource, scarce. But unlike other economic resources, it ought not be allocated through the "invisible arms" of demand and supply.
Alex Kee, Johor Bahru Malaysia

As a world, we must first recognise the problem
Sara, Lake Stevens, USA
Those who insist that the plunging ratio of water to world population is not an issue that we can control as global citizens are sadly mistaken. As a world, we must first recognise the problem, and begin to treat this dangerous malady with direct action; conservation.
Sara, Lake Stevens, USA

There will be no water wars. The fact is that water is overabundant in some places and scarce in others. Ergo, water is a regional problem. Furthermore, the global population will begin to decline in this century, possibly as early as 2035. Fertility rates are already below replacement level in Turkey, Iran, Tunisia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Brazil, most of the Caribbean, China, Thailand and the entire developed world except Israel and Utah.
Doug Forbes, Grenefield, Indiana

Water is perhaps the most foolishly misused and abused resource on the planet
Gavin Joth, Victoria, Canada
Charging more for water is not the answer. This will simply mean that the rich will continue to use it in excess and the poor will die Water is perhaps the most foolishly misused and abused resource on the planet.
Gavin Joth, Victoria, Canada

For two years I lived in Gibraltar, which due to the Spanish blockade had an annual summer fresh water crisis. Tankers of fresh water had to be shipped in. But we had another standby solution. We had three taps in our kitchen; one for hot, one for cold, and one for salt water. The salt water was used for washing clothes, dishes, whatever. This could easily be adapted to flushing the toilet.
Franklin Mcbride, Dunedin, New Zealand

Desalination would be an option, but it is energy intensive and produces fairly toxic waste products
Andrew Phillips, Bangor, Wales
There are too many people in the affluent, developed, countries. The poor starving masses in the southern countries consume a trivial amount of the world's resources compared to Europe, North America, and Japan. The birth of every European, American, and Japanese child condemns thousands of those who are less lucky to poverty, disease, and suffering. Desalination would be an option, but it is energy intensive and produces fairly toxic waste products. There is more in seawater than water & sodium chloride. Conversely, without healthy oceans, healthy forests, and healthy wetlands we cannot hope to have sufficient fresh water.
Andrew Phillips, Bangor, Wales

It is not hard to see that the water shortage is only one of the problems caused by the world's single biggest catastrophe - the population explosion. Attack that and umpteen other issues will simply melt away.
Gautam Sarkar, Calcutta, India

I have read a lot about water conservation. Unfortunately none of the articles I have read mentioned how decreasing meat consumption conserves water. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. A typical American diet requires 4,000 gallons of water per day. This clearly shows that the less meat we consume, the more water we conserve.
Kody Kunda, Austin, Texas

The political powers at the G8 (and no, I am not an anti-capitalist) should stop quoting depressing statistics to just sound good and important, and tackle the problem head on. It will not go away, but will remain and probably get worse if we do nothing.
Eton Thompson, Hillaby Barbados

I understand the fears associated with privatisation. One thing to consider, however, is the financial incentive for companies to provide clean water. That could translate into a more reliable water source in desperate countries - even if the official customer is a standing government.
Isaac Forquer, Pullman, WA, USA

It's not just up to governments to make decisions about issues like water
Tanya, Wellington, New Zealand
The current power crisis in New Zealand, and the nation's response to it, is proof that it's possible for more people to take responsibility for their personal consumption of resources. It's not just up to governments to make decisions about issues like water, non-renewable resources and food distribution. It's up to all of us, especially those of us in the so-called developed world.
Tanya, Wellington, New Zealand

A few things you may not know about America. About 35% of homes in Kentucky have no running water. If we can't solve water problems in a Midwestern state with plenty of rainfall a huge river to the north and large underground sources, how can we hope to fix the many problems of the third world? Not everyone in the U.S. is wealthy.
Thomas Stoll, Cincinnati, USA

People in the rich world will not save water until they realise that water is an expensive commodity.
Sandip Savasadia, Karlskrona, Sweden
When water is free then it is the world's poor who suffer. People in the rich world will not save water until they realise that water is an expensive commodity. The EU and the US have to put an end to their agriculture policy which is economically and environmentally unsustainable.
Sandip Savasadia, Karlskrona, Sweden

It's true that the industrialised nations use far more water per capita than the impoverished ones, but no amount of saving will help - I cannot see giant water tankers sailing for Africa from harbours in Western Europe! Instead, the industrialised countries should apply their knowledge and ingenuity to the problem and come up with new and imaginative solutions to this problem.
Michael Irwin, Philadelphia, USA

Mayik from Sudan hits the nail on the head. We spend billions on war technology and self indulgence while the Third World suffers from lack of technology and resource management of basic needs.
Douglas Dewitz, Kanab, UT, USA

Global efforts should be directed to solve this serious problem, rather than igniting new ones
Mayik, Sudan
In Sudan we have plenty of water resources, but people still die of thirst and water- borne diseases due to the lack of adequate technology and the primitive ways used to manage these resources. I believe that the countries of the first world should allot funds to develop water resources in countries rich in water like Sudan. Global efforts should be directed to solve this serious problem, rather than igniting new ones.
Mayik, Sudan

I am fully signed up to redressing the obscene and unjustified inequalities between rich and poor countries. So I agree that in order to further the cause of world peace, it is about time the leaders of Western European and North American nations made sure that some of their rain falls on poorer countries instead.
Malcolm, London, UK

Here at the G8 Summit in Evian, France, where water and sanitation were supposed to be high on the agenda, it's clear that the G8 leaders are not listening to these frightening statistics. No new money has been delivered to tackle the world's water crisis. The hopes of the poor from this rich man's club have been flushed down the toilet.
Joanne Green , At the G8 Summit in Evian, France

We need to begin focusing on natural ways to conserve water sources and cut back on consumption
Jeremiah, Florida, USA
In addition to the growing over use of water across the globe, I see in the United States the gross waste of water on impractical and expensive things, designed for personal pleasure and benefit. We need to begin focusing on natural ways to conserve and preserve our water sources and cut back on consumption and excess usage. I think that goes for other limited resources including fossil fuels and, in the United States, food consumption as well.
Jeremiah, Florida, USA

The statistics are alarming and one needs to think fast. Special attention should be given by governments and organisations to the water issue.
Asmat Niazi, Islamabad

Drinkable water, like all the finite resources of the earth, will unfortunately be one more reason for wars to erupt in the near future. Until humanity can live in balance with the earth and humans with each other, we face a dark future.
Randy Simpson, Aurora Colorado USA

The Dutch probably know more about water and how to regulate it than any other nation. The irrigation systems are so efficient that most of this tiny country is dedicated to farming. On a personal level, we have to pay a lot for our water.
Alan Barrow, Zwaag, Holland

Frances and Paul: what do you do with the salt? Jan McManus hit the nail on the head. We need to address how we distribute as well as how we conserve. What is needed is clear thinking, not snap solutions which may end up causing more problems than they solve (e.g. desalination).
Chris, UK

Are desalination plants a partial solution and if so, shouldn't we start building them now?
Frances Morgan, Southsea, UK

Paul, we're a long, long way off fusion power. You might as well say we don't need to worry as we'll soon be able to control the weather and make it rain at will.
Andrew, Watford, UK

Fusion power will one day provide us (and the third world) with cheap, abundant energy
Paul, UK
The human race will, though probably not soon, increase its supply of fresh water. Fusion power will one day provide us (and the third world) with cheap, abundant energy. Using this we will be able to operate massive desalination plants.
Paul, UK

Jan hit the nail on the head - reducing the amount of water `Westerners' consume does not mean there is more water in Asia or Africa. Why the West is blamed for poor water supply and distribution in the Third World is beyond me. Isn't asking the West to sort out Third World problems simply a veiled call for neo-colonialism?
Mike, Canberra, Australia

Why is the debate being presented as a single issue? If I reduce the amount of water I consume in a day - this does not mean there is more water in Asia or Africa as a result.
Jan McManus, Bromley, London

In our community we are billed for our usage of water at a fixed rate per 100 cubic feet. Our sewer bill is based upon water used. However, water used for the garden and other outside usage is on a separate meter. This certainly forces us to watch our water consumption.
Frank, Mankato, Minnesota, USA

Water forum 'giant talking shop'
23 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
'Real conflicts' over world's water
20 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
UN makes water point
27 Jan 03  |  Science/Nature


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