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Prof Laurence Mee
One of the greatest challenges facing humanity
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Wednesday, 12 January, 2000, 13:17 GMT
Scientists analyse water crisis

Water Fresh water: A scarce resource

Scientists are meeting in Plymouth, UK, to work out how to preserve the world's fresh water supplies.

Water shortage has become a key environmental issue as we enter the 21st Century, with many commentators warning that the situation is likely to become so severe over the next few decades that it could trigger major civil unrest and even war.

The $6m Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) project has been tasked by the United Nations to establish the extent of the problem.

It will then be down to world governments to agree measures to tackle the waste and pollution that threatens to deprive millions of people of the adequate supplies of clean water they need to drink and irrigate crops.

'Serious abuse'

"People have woken up to the fact that abuse of the environment is very serious," says Professor Laurence Mee of the Plymouth Environmental Research Centre, based at the University of Plymouth.

Coastal zones are areas rich in biological diversity and we have to learn how so many people can co-exist with their natural environment
Professor Laurence Mee
"A long-term legacy of abuse of global waters means that the biggest strategic issue this century is going to be the degradation of water, and without water all life on this planet would cease to exist."

The centre has taken charge of the first stage of the GIWA project by helping to draw up a strategy that will guide researchers as they go about their investigation.

Although there is no overall shortage of water on Earth, most of it is not of the right quality, in the right place, nor in the right state to be of any use.

There are about a million million million tonnes of water on our planet - enough to cover the UK to a depth of over 4,000 km - but nearly all of this is the salt water of the oceans. Only about 3% of all water is fresh and 80% of this is locked away in the polar ice caps.

What fresh water is available is failing to meet the needs of the six billion people who now live on our planet. A third of the world's population will be short of fresh water by the year 2025, according to a recent report by the Johns Hopkins Population Information Programme in the US.

The worst water shortages are expected in the developing world, where inefficient use of water is putting an extra strain on already scarce resources.


"By 2010, it is estimated that 50% of the world's population will live in coastal zones and major industries already depend on sea trade," says Professor Mee. "Coastal zones are areas rich in biological diversity and we have to learn how so many people can co-exist with their natural environment.

"But we are contaminating the water with some of the products of our overconsumption. In developed countries, for example, a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus is going into the water and polluting our coastal seas. These nutrients cause a kind of over production in coastal ecosystems that lead to their eventual decline."

The GIWA has been set up under the United Nation's Global Environmental Facility. It is designed not only to analyse the current problems and their societal root causes, but to develop scenarios of the future condition of the world's water resources and analyse policy options.

In this sense, it will act much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which aims to provide sound science to governments on what many observers believe is humanity's detrimental influence on global weather systems.

The GIWA project has just six months to come up with a plan prior to implementing a full study around the world. Within two years, it aims to have set the criteria for intervention to improve the management of global waters.

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See also:
17 Jul 99 |  Sci/Tech
Food at risk as water drips away
28 Aug 98 |  World
'Water wars' predicted

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