Growing up in a country where fresh, clean water flows with the turn of a tap, many Australians might assume it is a limitless resource. It is not. In fact, an article in the business magazine Fortune in May 2000 included the statement: ‘Water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth century’. In many parts of the world, people lack access not only to clean, safe drinking water, but also to the basic sanitation systems such as toilets and sewerage systems that we take for granted. In 2008, the International Year of Sanitation, the World Health Authority estimated that 1.1 billion people did not have access to safe drinking water and between 2 billion and 6 billion lacked access to basic levels of sanitation. Approximately 2 million people in less developed nations died from water-associated diseases such as cholera, dysentery, schistosomiasis and worm infestations. Approximately one-third of the 1.1 billion people in the world currently without access to safe water live in Africa. A sub-Saharan baby is 500 times more likely to die from diarrhoea (caused by drinking polluted water) than a baby in the developed world. Forecasts suggest that, without action, the situation will be much worse by 2025. Why the pressure on water supplies?
The world's rapidly growing population is the main pressure on its fresh water supplies. As the population grows, so does the demand for water to drink, to irrigate agriculture (which consumes about 70 per cent of fresh water used worldwide) and to support industry. The world's population has doubled since 1900, but in that time the demand for fresh water has increased sixfold. Source: World Health Organization
FIGURE 1 Percentage of population in selected countries with sustainable access to improved sanitation Source: World Health Organization
FIGURE 2 Percentage of population in selected countries with sustainable access to improved drinking water
FIGURE 3 Access of the world's population to improved drinking water The pressure this places on the world's aquifer stores is intense, and some are already becoming depleted. These natural ‘underground sponges’ can take hundreds of years to fill up. Yet each year, the world's population is using 180 000 billion litres more from aquifers than is being refilled. Bad water management practices can make the situation even more extreme, and seriously affect the environment. For example, salinity can become a problem in heavily irrigated regions (by helping to raise the watertable) and freshwater river systems can become clogged as their waters are diverted into dams. Other factors
Other pressures on available fresh water supplies include pollution and the shortages in rainfall predicted to occur in some parts of the world due to global warming. Natural disasters, such as the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, can compound the problem by polluting already limited water supply sources. What is being done?
In 2000, 189 member countries of the United Nations pledged their joint commitment to a series of urgent goals outlined in the Millennium Declaration. One of these, Millennium Goal 7, was to halve, by 2025, the number of people worldwide without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. For this goal, access is defined as 20 litres per person per day within one kilometre of their dwelling (or a thirty-minute round trip). Safe means that consumption will not cause harm. In the Asia–Pacific region, 80 per cent had achieved such access by 2006; however, in the sub-Saharan region only 46 per cent had such access. Other agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the non-profit organisation Global Water, have also been working for many years to improve access to safe water and sanitation. The focus is on solutions that will be sustainable and effective. Approaches taken to address the water shortage problem include: * setting...