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According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, 783 million people, or 11 per cent of the global population, remain without access to an improved source of drinking water. Such sources include household connections, public standpipes, boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs and rainwater collections. The world has met the MDG drinking water target five years ahead of schedule but work is not yet completely done. We must not forget that since it is not yet possible to measure water quality globally, dimensions of safety, reliability and sustainability may actually be slowing progress. Furthermore, there are regions particularly delayed such as Sub-Saharan Africa where over 40 per cent of all people without improved drinking water live.

photo of a boy standing in front of a well tipping a bowl of water over his head
The United Nations has long been addressing the global crisis caused by insufficient water supply to satisfy basic human needs and growing demands on the world’s water resources to meet human, commercial and agricultural needs. The United Nations Water Conference (1977), the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990), the International Conference on Water and the Environment (1992) and the Earth Summit (1992) — all focused on this vital resource. The Decade, in particular, helped some 1.3 billion people in developing countries gain access to safe drinking water.

One of the most important recent milestones has been the recognition in July 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly of the human right to water and sanitation. The Assembly recognized the right of every human being to have access to sufficient water for personal and domestic uses (between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day), which must be safe, acceptable and affordable (water costs should not exceed 3 per cent of household income), and physically accessible (the water source has to be within 1,000 metres of the home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes).

UN system activities specially focus on the sustainable development of fragile and finite freshwater resources, which are under increasing stress from population growth, pollution and the demands of agricultural and industrial uses.

The crucial importance of water to so many aspects of human health, development and well-being led to the inclusion of a specific water-related target in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, every target of the MDGs depends on the achievement of the water and sanitation target: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV, AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

To help raise public awareness on the importance of water for life, the General Assembly declared 2003 International Year of Freshwater. Also in 2003, the Chief Executives Board (CEB), the coordinating body for the entire UN system, established UN Water — a UN inter-agency coordination mechanism for all freshwater and sanitation related issues. To further strengthen global action to meet the water-related MDG targets, the General Assembly proclaimed the 2005-2015 period International Decade for Action, “Water for Life”. The Decade began on 22 March 2005, which is observed annually as World Water Day.

Access to water in the Millennium Development Goals Report 2012
The world has met the MDG drinking water target five years ahead of schedule.
In 2010, 89 per cent of the world’s population was using improved drinking water sources, up from 76 per cent in 1990. If current trends continue, 92 per cent of the global population will be covered by 2015.

The number of people using improved drinking water sources reached 6.1 billion in 2010, up by over 2 billion since 1990.
China and India alone recorded almost half of global progress, with increases of 457 million and 522 million, respectively.
The work is not yet done. 11 per cent of the global population—783 million people—remains without access to an improved source of drinking water and, at the current pace, 605 million people will still lack coverage in 2015. .

In four of nine developing regions, 90 per cent or more of the population now uses an improved drinking water source. In contrast, coverage remains very low in Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa, neither of which is on track to meet the MDG drinking water target by 2015. Over 40 per cent of all people without improved drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Since it is not yet possible to measure water quality globally, dimensions of safety, reliability and sustainability are not reflected in the proxy indicator used to track progress towards the MDG target. As a result, it is likely that the number of people using improved water sources is an overestimate of the actual number of people using safe water supplies.

Coverage with improved drinking water sources for rural populations is still lagging. In 2010, 96 per cent of the urban population used an improved drinking water source, compared with 81 per cent of the rural population. In absolute terms, because of population growth, the number of people without an improved source in urban areas actually increased. In rural areas, on the other hand, the number of people without an improved source of water decreased, from 1.1 billion in 1990 to 653 million in 2010. However, the gap between urban and rural areas still remains wide, with the number of people in rural areas without an improved water source five times greater than in urban areas.
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Water Crisis
Towards a way to impove the situation
"There is a water crisis today. But the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs. It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people - and the environment - suffer badly." World Water Vision Report

With the current state of affairs, correcting measures still can be taken to avoid the crisis to be worsening. There is a increasing awareness that our freshwater resources are limited and need to be protected both in terms of quantity and quality. This water challenge affects not only the water community, but also decision-makers and every human being. "Water is everybody's business" was one the the key messages of the 2nd World Water Forum.

Saving water resources
Whatever the use of freshwater (agriculture, industry, domestic use), huge saving of water and improving of water management is possible. Almost everywhere, water is wasted, and as long as people are not facing water scarcity, they believe access to water is an obvious and natural thing. With urbanization and changes in lifestyle, water consumption is bound to increase. However, changes in food habits, for example, may reduce the problem, knowing that growing 1kg of potatoes requires only 100 litres of water, whereas 1 kg of beef requires 13 000 litres.

Improving drinking water supply
Water should be recognized as a great priority. One of the main objectives of the World Water Council is to increase awareness of the water issue. Decision-makers at all levels must be implicated. One of the Millenium Development Goals is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. To that aim, several measures should be taken:

guarantee the right to water;
decentralise the responsibility for water;
develop know-how at the local level;
increase and improve financing;
evaluate and monitor water resources.
Improving transboundary cooperation

As far as transboundary conflicts are concerned, regional economic developement and cultural preservation can all be strengthened by states cooperating of water. Instead of a trend towards war, water management can be viewed as a trend towards cooperation and peace. Many initiatives are launched to avoid crises. Institutional commitments like in the Senegal River are created. In 2001, Unesco and Grenn Cross International have joined forces in response to the growing threat of conflicts linked to water. They launched the joint FromPotential Conflicts to Co-Operation Potential programme to promote peace in the use of transboundary watercourses by addressing conflicts and fostering co-operation among states and stakeholders.

An increase in tensions
As the resource is becoming scarce, tensions among different users may intensify, both at the national and international level. Over 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries. In the absence of strong institutions and agreements, changes within a basin can lead to transboundary tensions. When major projects proceed without regional collaboration, they can become a point of conflicts, heightening regional instability. The Parana La Plata, the Aral Sea, the Jordan and the Danube may serve as examples. Due to the pressure on the Aral Sea, half of its superficy has disappeared, representing 2/3 of its volume. 36 000 km2 of marin grounds are now recovered by salt.

Water stress results from an imbalance between water use and water resources. The water stress indicator in this map measures the proportion of water withdrawal with respect to total renewable resources. It is a criticality ratio, which implies that water stress depends on the variability of resources. Water stress causes deterioration of fresh water resources in terms of quantity (aquifer over-exploitation, dry rivers, etc.) and quality (eutrophication, organic matter pollution, saline intrusion, etc.) The value of this criticality ratio that indicates high water stress is based on expert judgment and experience (Alcamo and others, 1999). It ranges between 20 % for basins with highly variable runoff and 60 % for temperate zone basins. In this map, we take an overall value of 40 % to indicate high water stress. We see that the situation is heterogeneous over the world.

The concept of Water Stress
Already there is more waste water generated and dispersed today than at any other time in the history of our planet: more than one out of six people lack access to safe drinking water, namely 1.1 billion people, and more than two out of six lack adequate sanitation, namely 2.6 billion people (Estimation for 2002, by the WHO/UNICEF JMP, 2004). 3900 children die every day from water borne diseases (WHO 2004). One must know that these figures represent only people with very poor conditions. In reality, these figures should be much higher.

Water Crisis
While the world's population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources has grown six-fold. Within the next fifty years, the world population will increase by another 40 to 50 %. This population growth - coupled with industrialization and urbanization - will result in an increasing demand for water and will have serious consequences on the environment.
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An increasing demand
85% of the world population lives in the driest half of the planet.

783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.

6 to 8 million people die annually from the consequences of disasters and water-related diseases.

Various estimates indicate that, based on business as usual, ~3.5 planets Earth would be needed to sustain a global population achieving the current lifestyle of the average European or North American.

Global population growth projections of 2–3 billion people over the next 40 years, combined with changing diets, result in a predicted increase in food demand of 70% by 2050.

Over half of the world population lives in urban areas, and the number of urban dwellers grows each day. Urban areas, although better served than rural areas, are struggling to keep up with population growth (WHO/UNICEF, 2010).

With expected increases in population, by 2030, food demand is predicted to increase by 50% (70% by 2050) (Bruinsma, 2009), while energy demand from hydropower and other renewable energy resources will rise by 60% (WWAP, 2009). These issues are interconnected – increasing agricultural output, for example, will substantially increase both water and energy consumption, leading to increased competition for water between water-using sectors.

Water availability is expected to decrease in many regions. Yet future global agricultural water consumption alone is estimated to increase by ~19% by 2050, and will be even greater in the absence of any technological progress or policy intervention.

Water for irrigation and food production constitutes one of the greatest pressures on freshwater resources. Agriculture accounts for ~70% of global freshwater withdrawals (up to 90% in some fast-growing economies).

Economic growth and individual wealth are shifting diets from predominantly starch-based to meat and dairy, which require more water. Producing 1 kg of rice, for example, requires ~3,500 L of water, 1 kg of beef ~15,000 L, and a cup of coffee ~140 L (Hoekstra and Chapagain, 2008). This dietary shift is the greatest to impact on water consumption over the past 30 years, and is likely to continue well into the middle of the twenty-first century (FAO, 2006).

About 66% of Africa is arid or semi-arid and more than 300 of the 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in a water-scarce environment – meaning that they have less than 1,000 m3 per capita (NEPAD, 2006).

The impact of climate change
The IPCC predicts with high confidence that water stress will increase in central and southern Europe, and that by the 2070s, the number of people affected will rise from 28 million to 44 million. Summer flows are likely to drop by up to 80% in southern Europe and some parts of central and Eastern Europe. Europe’s hydropower potential is expected to drop by an average of 6%, but rise by 20–50% around the Mediterranean by 2070 (Alcamo et al., 2007).

The cost of adapting to the impacts of a 2°C rise in global average temperature could range from US$70 to $100 billion per year between 2020 and 2050 (World Bank, 2010). Of this cost, between US$13.7 billion (drier scenario) and $19.2 billion (wetter scenario) will be related to water, predominantly through water supply and flood management.

A resource without borders
Water is not confined to political borders. An estimated 148 states have international basins within their territory (OSU, n.d., 2008 data), and 21 countries lie entirely within them (OSU, n.d, 2002 data).

There are 276 transboundary river basins in the world (64 transboundary river basins in Africa, 60 in Asia, 68 in Europe, 46 in North America and 38 in South America).

185 out of the 276 transboundary river basins, about two-thirds, are shared by two countries. 256 out of 276 are shared by 2, 3 or 4 countries (92,7%), and 20 out of 276 are shared by 5 or more countries (7,2%), the maximum being 18 countries sharing a same transboundary river basin (Danube).

46% of the globe’s (terrestrial) surface is covered by transboundary river basins.

148 countries include territory within one or more transboundary river basins. 39 countries have more than 90% of their territory within one or more transboundary river basins, and 21 lie entirely within one or more of these watersheds.

Russian Federation shares 30 transboundary river basins with riparian countries, Chile and United States 19, Argentina and China 18, Canada 15, Guinea 14, Guatemala 13, and France 10.

Africa has about one-third of the world’s major international water basins – basins larger than 100,000 km2. Virtually all sub-Saharan African countries, and Egypt, share at least one international water basin. Depending on how they are counted, there are between 63 (UNEP, 2010b) and 80 (UNECA, 2000) transboundary river and lake basins on the African continent.

Rich nations are tending to maintain or increase their consumption of natural resources (WWF, 2010), but are exporting their footprints to producer, and typically, poorer, nations. European and North American populations consume a considerable amount of virtual water embedded in imported food and products. Each person in North America and Europe (excluding former Soviet Union countries) consumes at least 3 m3 per day of virtual water in imported food, compared to 1.4 m3 per day in Asia and 1.1 m3 per day in Africa (Zimmer and Renault, n.d.).

Land grabbing is another increasingly common phenomenon. Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s largest cereal growers, announced it would cut cereal production by 12% a year to reduce the unsustainable use of groundwater. To protect its water and food security, the Saudi government issued incentives to Saudi corporations to lease large tracts of land in Africa for agricultural production. By investing in Africa to produce its staple crops, Saudi Arabia is saving the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year and reducing the rate of depletion of its fossil aquifers.

Nearly all Arab countries suffer from water scarcity. An estimated 66% of the Arab region’s available surface freshwater originates outside the region.

The treatment of wastewater requires significant amounts of energy, and demand for energy to do this is expected to increase globally by 44% between 2006 and 2030 (IEA, 2009), especially in non-OECD countries where wastewater currently receives little or no treatment (Corcoran et al., 2010).

Pollution knows no borders either. Up to 90% of wastewater in developing countries flows untreated into rivers, lakes and highly productive coastal zones, threatening health, food security and access to safe drinking and bathing water.

Over 80% of used water worldwide is not collected or treated (Corcoran et al., 2010).

Cooperation, a contrasted reality
There are numerous examples where transboundary waters have proved to be a source of cooperation rather than conflict. Nearly 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007 (OSU, 2007).

Over 90 international water agreements were drawn up to help manage shared water basins on the African continent (UNEP, 2010).
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Solving The Global Water Problem, One River At A Time
While the earth is blessed with 11 quintillion gallons of fresh water, waste and inefficient distribution systems have turned this theoretically inexhaustible resource into a key commodity for long-term investors, nations and non-government groups to fight over.

The investment opportunity is vast, with $11 trillion in infrastructure projects required by 2030 just for the world to keep up. And with close to 800 million people currently cut off from reliable sources of clean water, the basic humanitarian need for dams, pipes and purification plants has never been higher.

Little known today, the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan has the potential to become a superpower in a world where water rights are the new keys to global influence. The country’s rivers carry 14 trillion gallons of water a year down to the remains of the Aral Sea, generating 4% of all hydroelectric potential along the way.

Because this resource represents the lifeblood of several countries downstream, access to the flow is an issue of international concern, which is one reason the United Nations picked Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe to host its recent High-Level Meeting for Water Cooperation.

I was in the city to attend the conference and had the opportunity to interview His Excellency, Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, about how his country fits into the world’s water economy. His comments were enlightening.

A few points to keep in perspective:

As much as 15% of the global population does not have sufficient clean drinking water to sustain life. For that many people, a single glass of clean water is an unspeakable luxury.
Half of the countries in the world share a water source with at least one neighbor.
Many of those countries are not on friendly terms. Water usage is often a source of tension.
If all countries used as much water as the US and Europe, we would need 250% more water than what the planet’s natural waterways can currently supply.
On a globe with 70% of its surface covered by water, one would think there is definitely enough fluid in the world for everyone, but managing it effectively requires a level of cooperation and coordination that does not exist.
President Rahmon focused exclusively on the topic of water and water cooperation. He kept returning to the importance of water issues in the international community and Tajikistan’s commitment to participate in and facilitate vital ongoing dialogue among nations.

Water is not just a regional issue, he said, but a global one. As such, Tajikistan is committed to proposing new initiatives and facilitating dialogue regarding safe drinking water for all as well as matters related to sanitation — another vital yet sometimes overlooked issue.

Given the importance of the global challenge, he has lobbied the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2013 the International Year For Water Cooperation and was a key figure in getting the UN to focus on water challenges beginning with 2015-2025, the so-called “Decade For Water Cooperation.”

President Rahmon noted that much work has been done with trans-boundary water issues in various parts of the world, giving other regions – like Central Asia – a template for solving their own trans-boundary water issues. What would be helpful, he suggested, would be for the United Nations to produce a blueprint for water cooperation that nations sharing water sources can put into practice.

Single nations cannot solve these issues alone, he said. While countries like Tajikistan control the sources of key waterways, downstream neighbors are entitled to their share of the flow. In his opinion, the only way to address water challenges for safe drinking water and sanitation is through high-level cooperation between UN member states, relevant stakeholders and civil society.

Water treaties or water wars

Unfortunately, with no international road map currently on the table, access to fresh water sources is rapidly becoming a strategic flashpoint for many countries from Morocco to China. As legendary global investor Jim Rogers points out, war over water is nearly inevitable everywhere west of the Red Sea, while on the other side of the planet only oil will challenge water for preeminence.

President Rahmon welcomes intervention from the international community where disputes over water are most desperate. He considers the question too important for individual national actors to pursue their own interests independent of their neighbors. A clearinghouse for information and best practices would help each country make the most of its share, and naturally the private sector needs to be encouraged to be part of the process.

When asked about the Tajikistan’s long-anticipated Rogun Dam, projected to be the tallest dam in the world, President Rahmon said the project will definitely benefit all the Tajik people by converting a small percentage of the country’s water wealth into reliable, renewable energy. But he is looking beyond Tajikistan’s borders, hastening to add that Rogun is the bright future for all countries in the region, including and most especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, two neighboring countries in need of better energy security.

Ultimately, President Rahmon’s vision is for the dam to reduce poverty and promote prosperity throughout Central Asia, bringing millions of people into the electrical economy and eliminating the motivation to opt into terrorist movements or extremist positions.

His comments indeed seem like a tall order, but his manner and tone convinced me that these are his earnest hopes, and insofar as he is able to lead the way after the looming presidential election, he intends to do so.

The High-Level Water Cooperation Conference was the third such international meeting he has invited to Tajikistan with this focus. A UN Decade for Water initiative would be the fourth such initiative.

Inside the global water works
The Water Cooperation Conference itself was by any standard a big success, drawing about 1,000 delegates from 90 countries. Topics discussed ranged from primary conditions for neighboring countries to enter into dialogue over water security issues, to how climate change is affecting many low-lying and island nations to the effects of gender upon matters related to water security. All the discussions were well attended and lively.

While the final statements and outcomes did not have quite the bite and leverage some Tajik observers might have hoped to see, anyone familiar with the process of consensus building among UN member states knows that this is par for the course. The UN is a massive bureaucracy and the real work happens behind and around the high-profile events, but the events themselves are a concrete demonstration of interest and commitment to the cause.

Many in attendance heard colleagues from far away voice their own or similar concerns about water, which we are beginning to realize is perhaps the most valuable of all nature’s resources. The conversation has begun, and it will need to continue.
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Fresh water concerns
“We’re going to run out of water much much earlier than we’ll run out of oil,” warned Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé, at the OECD Forum in May 2012. The projections in the OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2050 certainly suggest that freshwater availability will be strained unless new action is taken.
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