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The State of the Planet's Fresh Water Supply

  • Water covers close to three-quarters of the Earth's surface, but only a fraction of it is fresh water not locked in ice. South America accounts for about half of our planet's fresh water supply. Asia gets almost one-quarter. The remaining quarter is used by everyone living in North and Central America, Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East.

  • Most of the water we use goes to growing food: irrigation siphons off roughly two-thirds of all we consume. Industrial and other economic activities draw less than a third. Common household uses, most of which are low quality, such as watering lawns and flushing toilets, account for what is left. Men and women use water differently: men tend to use water for irrigation and other enterprises; women tend to use it for household purposes.

  • Water is often distributed inequitably by class, gender, and even ethnic group. To make matters worse, the poor generally pay more for water than do the rich.

  • All the best and cheapest sources of water are now being used. In some regions, we are approaching the limits: in the Middle East, 58% of all reasonably available fresh water is already being withdrawn. In Eastern Europe, the figure stands at 41%.

  • Other strategies to increase water supply, such as desalinating seawater or shipping large volumes by pipeline or sea, are technically feasible, but they are complicated and expensive and would likely entail severe ecological and political costs.

  • For more and more people, water quality is every bit as threatening as the lack of adequate supplies. Already more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 3 billion lack access to basic sewerage systems.

Options for the Future
  • The cheapest, most efficient way to increase the supply of fresh water is by managing its demand: reducing waste and making every drop serve more purposes, more efficiently.

  • Past approaches that favoured large-scale, capital intensive projects did deliver water to many households and many farms, but most fell short of their original promise.

  • Thirty years of applied research supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) offers a new focus for global efforts to curb water demand and alleviate poverty: community-based or local water management.

  • Experience around the world shows the following:

    • Scarce water supplies are used more sustainably if they are managed locally.

    • Local management empowers people, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

    • Local management generally looks to more traditional rather than new solutions.

    • Local water systems must be managed within frameworks linked to watershed management and to senior levels of government.

    • Local management works best when policymakers can draw upon the lessons of field research when making decisions.

  • Approaches to local water management that have proven effective

    • Small-scale water supply, such as rainwater collection;

    • Wastewater treatment and reuse, to improve sanitation and provide water suitable for irrigation;

    • Community-based water quality testing, to allow isolated rural communities to monitor their drinking water supplies;

    • Watershed management and irrigation, to improve soil productivity and reduce the considerable waste from irrigation.

Lessons learnt
  • Expect the worse when managing groundwater and aquifer supplies. Pumping rates and pollution levels, for example, are almost always grossly underestimated.

  • Humble innovations can produce surprisingly powerful benefits. Yet, decision-makers frequently overlook small groups and simple solutions.

  • Social and economic factors are always important in local water management. To ensure the success of local water management programs, researchers and policymakers must understand these factors.

  • Scarcity forces trade-offs. To determine fairly who gets what, when, and for how much requires the ability to gather and assess information, to deliberate, to execute policies, and to answer responsibly to community members. Building this "institutional capacity" is necessary for local water management and for other sustainable resource management decisions.

  • Traditional practices will change only when people see the value in change. Local people must be convinced of the need for change. Solutions that are socially and culturally acceptable, and that fit well with local tradition, must then be developed.

  • Scaling-up from households to villages or to neighbourhoods favours the well-to-do because it requires capital or large tracts of land. Failure to account for these unequal effects can make a difficult situation worse for the poor and disadvantaged

Source: International Development Research Center (IDRC), Canada.
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