The MEA Repository
Freshwater Degradation
    < Current trends
  • There is an emerging 'water crisis' in some regions of the world. Today about one-third of the world's population is living under moderate or severe water stress, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • 1.3 billion people lack access to adequate supply of safe water and 2 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation. Water pollution is continuing to cause millions of preventable deaths every year, especially among children.
  • 70 percent of the water withdrawn is used for irrigation; one-half is lost to seepage and evaporation.
  • Hydrological and ecological functions of over one-half of all wetlands have been altered due to encroachment.
  • Global freshwater biodiversity is declining significantly.
  • Increasing water pollution affects water availability by imposing additional costs for treatment.
  • Poor land use is imposing a heavy economic and environmental cost on water resources.

    Underlying causes

  • Population growth, income growth, and rapid urbanization are increasing water demands for municipal, industrial, agri- cultural, and hydroelectric generation.
  • Water is treated as a social good and not an economic good, leading to its inefficient use, as in wasteful irrigation practices.
  • Excessive reliance on government for water and wastewater services.
  • Inadequate recognition of the health and environmental concerns associated with current practices.
  • Uncoordinated management of water between sectors, institutions and nations, with little regard for conflicts or complementarities between social, economic and environmental objectives.
  • Population pressures are increasing land degradation due to poor land management, thus worsening soil erosion and sediment transport in downstream areas.
  • Growing water scarcity worsens the effects of natural droughts that are endemic in many parts of the world.

    Projected impacts of human activities on fresh and marine water resources

  • In 2025, up to two-thirds of the world's population, depending upon the rate of population growth, may experience moderate or severe water stress. These will mainly be people living in developing countries, whose limited technical, financial, and management capabilities will pose a disproportionate burden on their national economies.
  • Water pollution will continue to degrade freshwater and marine ecosystems.
  • Poor land use will continue to increase the frequency of flash floods, and will pollute coastal and marine ecosystems.

    Social and economic consequences of projected changes

  • Surface and groundwater quality will be further degraded.
  • Provision of safe water in urban and rural areas will remain a major challenge in the future.
  • Human health risks from inadequate sanitation will continue to be a major concern, especially in urban areas.
  • Water use will need to be managed in a more holistic and multisectoral manner, i.e., agriculture, domestic, and industrial uses.
  • Economic impacts of land degradation on water resources will be exacerbated.
  • Conflicts between sectoral uses in some nations, and between nations in some regions of the world, will worsen. Tensions between riparian states sharing transboundary waters are likely to intensify.

    Technologies, policies, and measures to mitigate the projected changes

    At the national level, priorities include:

  • Placing greater emphasis on integrated, cross-sectoral water resources management, addressing quantity and quality concerns jointly.
  • Using river and groundwater basins as management units and recognizing freshwater, coastal, and marine environments as a management continuum.
  • Recognizing water as a scarce economic good, and promoting cost-effective interventions.
  • Supporting innovative and participatory efforts to manage water resources, and strengthening national capacities, in- cluding for women.
  • Linking land-use management with sustainable, integrated water-resources management.
  • Stimulate the adoption of a wide range of proven water-conserving techniques and technologies, especially water- conserving forms of agricultural irrigation.

    At the more difficult international level, efforts need to:

  • Promote dialogue on basin-wide cooperation in such fields as information-sharing, capacity building, and technology transfers, as well as on regional development programs.
  • Focus on achievable goals without getting stuck on rights and allocation issues.

"Protecting Our Planet, Securing Our Future" UNEP / U.S. NASA / World Bank, 1997