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Water, water everywhere ...

Among the biggest issues that confront urban development professionals all over the world today is the provision of safe drinking water for much of the urban population. Gunnar Lindth and Wilfred H.Gilbrich in their article - Water in an urbanizing world ( Nature and Resources, Volume 32, Number 2, 1996 ) address this problem.

At the start of the century, the world was largely a rural place and fewer than one person in seven lived in urban areas but by the end of the century nearly half of the world population will be urban. Africa, which was one of the least urbanized region of the world, now has an urbanization rate of more than 4 percent annually, compared with a population growth rate of 3 percent .

Cities today have to depend on resources which extend beyond the rural hinterlands so much so that they compete with needs of irrigation. Farmers in Arizona, in the western United States, pay less than one cent for every cubic metre of water, while the citizens of nearby Phoenix city pay nearly 25 cents. As far as primacy is concerned - Mexico City serves as a good example. More than 50 percent of Mexico's Service sector and 50 percent of the country's industrial output are concentrated in this city. The demand for water supply has far exceeded supply. Ground water which constitutes 80 percent of the total supply has been over pumped and used to such an extent that it has caused subsidence of parts of the old city up to 8-9 m . Activities in Mexico city now require water to be expensively drawn from remote aquifers 200 km away and it has been claimed that the cost to the nation of supporting Mexico City; may in fact, exceed its contribution in goods and services.

Bangkok too has been in recent decades been withdrawing an excess of ground water, resulting in localized ground subsidence of more than 10cm/year.

Metro Manila (Philippines) is another megacity expected to reach a population of 11 million by 2000. The city is served by piped surface water from five heavily polluted rivers and reservoirs, where untreated industrial waste is discharged and domestic waste contributes to more than half the pollution load in the water system. Ground water levels in some areas have been depleted up to 200 m below sea level, resulting in serious salt water intrusion.

Consider these points:


  • While a US family may rinse and flush away as much as 2,000 litres of water a day, families in some parts of the developing world survive on as little as 150 litres a day.
  • About 25% percent of what we consume goes to industry, while 70% more supports farms and ranches (irrigated land makes up only 17% of all farmland, but produces 40% of the world's crops).
  • A 1996 report by China's National Environmental Protection Agency concluded that 78% of the water in rivers flowing through the Chinese cities was no longer drinkable. The Yangtze River, for example, is being polluted with 40 million tons of industrial and sewage waste a day.
  • Of the 25 countries listed by UNEP as having the least access to safe water, 19 are in Africa.

TIME Special Environment Issue, November 1997.

A general misunderstanding still exists that water is a free commodity. However, growing water shortages in several parts of the world will probably make it inevitable that water must be assigned an economic value. The 1992 'Dublin Declaration' stipulated that : 'Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic commodity' and ' ... it is vital to recognize first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price.'

Whether industrialized or developing, rich or poor, all countries alike in our day and age are concerned with water issues in urban areas. In nearly all urban areas today, population densities no longer allow for unlimited access to pure, safe water, nor permit the release of untreated waste waters.

Financial resources must be mobilized in developing technologies to combat water problems and build better treatment plants. Yet, we have another even more powerful tool in rethinking the impact of our daily habits on the utilization of water and changing our own water use habits. Many water saving techniques and waste recycling techniques exist today, if only we would make use of them. The biggest issue in stake is not financial or technical , but a problem of mind-set.

Manu and Anshu, UEMRI-India

Review of Gunnar Lindth and Wilfred H.Gilbrich, "Water in an urbanizing world" Nature and Resources, Volume 32, Number 2, 1996.
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