Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Billions Face Water Insecurity 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  October 3 / 10

Zack Gross

The summer of 2010 was a wet one! 

For Manitoba’s Interlake Region, it marked the third consecutive wet growing season.  In our neighbouring province, the main streets and many homes in Yorkton, SK were flooded, and that province experienced continuously stormy weather.  The Calgary Stampede, for the first time in its history, had to be cancelled for a day due to cold, wet weather in mid-July (12 degrees and pouring – I was there!).

However, a recent global analysis of the supply of fresh water available to people on our globe today, published in the journal Nature, shows that scarcity and pollution puts 80% of the world’s population in an insecure position.  Trillions of dollars have been spent on water infrastructure (dams, canals, pipelines, treatment plants) in the “developed world”, thus many threats that might otherwise exist have been mitigated. 

But the poorer parts of our world face the brunt of our water problems as they cannot afford massive investment to manage and keep safe their water resources.  Scientists warn, though, that wealthier countries also are facing challenges in financing their water projects.  As well, while development has had a positive effect on the health and welfare of most human communities, large water projects have often hurt wildlife and wilderness areas.

Draining swamps, setting up irrigation schemes, damming rivers and lakes and other initiatives are now seen to have both good and bad effects.  With the emptying of some aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the evaporation and inefficiency in large water projects, our changing climate, and with less money available in today’s world economic climate to spend, rapidly developing countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) – and those that are poor – will have to find new ways to harness and protect their water supplies.

“Developing” countries are tapping into their water potential in part by trapping rainwater, even in drier areas.  As an example, it is estimated that enough water falls on Kenya each year to supply its forty million people six times over.  While many part of Ethiopia suffer from drought, the total national rainfall would be enough for ten times its population. 

About one-third of average rainfall is needed to sustain the wider environment – rivers, forests, grasslands and so on.  The other two-thirds, if captured, can more than adequately serve people and agriculture.  The United Nations Environment Program, the World Agroforestry Centre and many Western non-profit groups have been supplying Third World farmers and communities with water harvesting equipment, from large holding tanks to rain barrels, as insurance against uncertain or uneven rains.  Even North American householders are taking advantage of civic programs to purchase plastic rain-catching tanks and connect them to their eaves troughs.

In a world where larger water projects are no longer always financially feasible, small scale or “appropriate” technology is best.  In meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, community or family rain harvesters help mothers to access clean water from above rather than polluted water from local rivers.  They also allow women to spend time at home with their children, delivering lessons or tending their gardens, rather than trekking all day to bring back home jars of water on their heads. 

While Africa is not a dry continent, rain tends to fall in large bursts and it is important to capture the water before it flows away.  Even Southern Australia now boasts of 40% of its households owning rainwater tanks.  Many European countries are making them standard in retrofitting or new construction.  Kenya and India require them on all new buildings. Four hundred seventy schools and community centres in India, coordinated by the Barefoot College, collect 30 million litres of clean rainwater in regions where conventional supplies are unsafe due to contamination by salt and metal industries.

Interestingly, the United States, arguably the most developed country in the world, actually faces “water poverty” issues. This reality is also relevant to Canada. 

Immigrant, Mexican and aboriginal populations in the US often live without proper sanitation and abundant, clean water. This situation is sometimes caused by availability in certain harsh climate areas but more often by private water companies shutting off the taps of those who miss utility payments. With a larger percentage of water being supplied by private interests and a less welfare-oriented view of what constitutes a human right in terms of sanitation, water supply and health, water access activists cite many examples of inadequate services to the poor, the elderly, and the rural and remote.  

Water is on everyone’s agenda. Like air, fire and earth, it is an essential element of life. It is at the centre of debate, a plank in every political figure’s platform and a focus of research and analysis. Its future is our future, and much is being done to ensure its quantity and quality. However, human activity and its natural consequences can put water and all of us at risk. 



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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