Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World Faces Fresh Water Crisis

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, March 20 / 10

Zack Gross

Earth’s population is now closing in on 6.5 billion, having tripled in the 20th century. 

Our use of water resources, however, actually has increased six-fold over that same time period! 

With world population expected to increase by half over the next fifty years and with urbanization and industrialization growing at an alarming rate, especially in the most populous “developing” countries, our demand and hope for fresh water, sanitation and a clean environment are clearly in jeopardy. 

More than a billion people today lack safe drinking water while over two billion lack adequate sanitation.  The United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 4,000 children die every day of water borne diseases.  Half of those facing sanitation challenges don’t even have toilets, latrines or other means to separate human waste from daily life. 

The effect on women and girls in particular is shocking.  Half the girls who drop out of school in Sub-Saharan Africa do so because there are no facilities for their use and/or because they must spend that potential learning time carrying water long distances for family use.

To keep up with population and consumption increases, more land is being made productive via irrigation, accounting for a large percentage of water use (two-thirds in some regions), and literally draining lakes and aquifers around the world. 

For instance, the size of Lake Tanganyika has been greatly reduced due to irrigation for export agriculture, particularly of cut flowers for the European market, resulting in part in the violence in Kenya last year.  It is with this statistical backdrop that we usher in another United Nations-declared World Water Day on March 22nd.

Not only does our fresh water shortage affect daily human health, but it has also become a cause of regional conflict.  Globally, around East Africa’s Lake Victoria, which borders on a number of countries including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, pollution of the lake due to local agriculture and industries, stock depletion due to overfishing, and poaching across international boundaries has caused regional tension and actual fighting. 

More locally, pollution, flooding and invasion of foreign fish stocks have caused tensions between Manitoba and North Dakota along the Red River axis over the past couple of decades.  Lake Winnipeg has also been affected by human activity across the numerous provinces and states that form its watershed.

The theme for World Water Day 2010 is Clean Water for a Healthy World, and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) is using the occasion to raise the profile of water quality issues at regional and national political levels.  A year ago, the focus was Water & Climate Change, with the World Water Council, made up of international organizations and experts, producing a paper “Don’t Stick Your Head in the Sand” that highlighted sixteen in-depth studies in world water “hotspot” areas. 

Weather in recent years has featured extreme occurrences – drought, major storms, snow in more tropical areas, unusual warmth during northern winters, and so on.  This has caused not only obvious death and destruction, but also damage to the world’s agricultural production, leading to a food crisis for the most vulnerable.

At the community, family and individual level, we can do much on a daily basis to improve the quality of water and sanitation.   Effective recycling and composting, and proper treatment or disposal of sewage and toxic wastes, can reduce local pollution of water and land. 

Reducing the use of bottled water to avoid both the plastic waste and the commercialization of our most precious resource is a cause of many environmental groups.  Governments, educational institutions and sports arenas are working to make tap water once more acceptable to consumers. 

Municipalities across Canada are moving to promote the collection of pet waste by owners and reduce the use of toxic lawn and garden chemicals.  All of these poisons run off or sink down into water sources. 

Councils are also asking homeowners to sweep, not hose down, their driveways and sidewalks, and to employ rainwater catchment tanks for use in watering.  Programs are being debated these days in Manitoba about the best ways for farmers to protect our water resources from animal waste and chemical inputs while still being able to run profitable operations. 

Of course, part of the protection and most efficient use of our water is the planting of trees to retain the soil and soak up runoff.

The water issues that face our world today are not simple, impacting on health, food production and relations between states. 

The greatest value of World Water Day is not that it will necessarily accomplish immediate change, but rather that it offers us the opportunity to publicize the challenges, get people - young and old - learning, thinking and talking, pushing decision-makers, and setting the right course locally, nationally and globally.


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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