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Monday, 13 March, 2000, 22:02 GMT
Water arithmetic 'doesn't add up'

By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The report drawn up by the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century says "the arithmetic of water simply does not add up".

It says that within 20 years, the world is likely to need much more water to grow the food it needs than it will be able to find.

dead fish in drought
The water is often in the wrong place
Only 2.5% of the world's water is not salty, and two-thirds of that is trapped in the icecaps and glaciers.

Of what is left, about 20% is in remote areas and most of the rest comes at the wrong time and in the wrong place, as with monsoons and floods.

The amount of fresh water available for human use is less than 0.08% of all the water on the planet.

About 70% of the fresh water is already used for agriculture, and the report says the demands of industry and energy will grow rapidly.

The World Water Council report estimates that in the next two decades the use of water by humans will increase by about 40%, and that 17% more water than is available will be needed to grow the world's food.

Fundamental change

As well, it says, "aquatic ecosystems throughout the world have been degraded and will need greater protection, and water quality is deteriorating in poor countries".

The commission concludes that "only rapid and imaginative institutional and technological innovation can avoid the crisis".

child in fountain
Water users should have a say in management
The commission recommends the establishment of a water innovation fund, because of the need to change the way we manage water.

The commission says global investment in water needs to go up from the present $70bn - $80bn annually, to $180bn, with almost all the increase coming from the private sector, not governments.

But governments "remain the key actors in the solution, by what they do or do not do, and how they choose to do it".

The report stresses the need to give the people who use the water the final say over how it is used.

The commission calls for "users' parliaments", where users would have a major role with their national government in managing aquifers and river basins.

Respecting geography

The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century is chaired by Ismail Serageldin. He said: "Experience shows that this participation must be real and not symbolic, and shows that these users' associations and parliaments must have a decisive role in deciding what is done, how it is done, and who pays for it."

The commission also wants the private sector to be allowed to take over most financing and service provisions, and calls for water to be managed "holistically", at the level of river basins rather than at political or administrative boundaries.

The price of water should cover its full cost, to promote conservation. But the report says that must go hand in hand with a commitment to provide targeted subsidies for poor people.

The report, to be presented at the second world water forum in the Netherlands, starting on 17 March, says the present water crisis will worsen and affect millions more people if nothing is done.

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