Albion Monitor /News

Outlook Bleak on Water Resources

by Danielle Knight

In the future, a lack of water will be a fact of life for many
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Although the growth in the world's population has slowed in recent years, the future still looks bleak with not enough fresh water to go around, say researchers.

"An air of complacency has tended to accompany the most recent U.N. population projections," says Robert Engelman, co-author of a new report by the Washington-based research organization Population Action International (PAI).

"People need to recognize that even with slower growth, a lack of water will be a fact of life for many more people in the future than is the case today."

While overall global population growth is slowing, the number of people living under water-stressed conditions is expected to increase four-fold
Water supplies in some places, such as India, temporarily will be better off than scientists once feared. But global water resources remain under serious threat -- especially in regions already prone to conflict, such as Africa and the Middle East -- according to the report "Sustaining Water, Easing Scarcity: A Second Update."

"Worldwide, the future water situation looks brighter than it did just two years ago, due to slower projected population growth in many countries," says Engelman.

"Nevertheless, the pace of future population growth will largely determine whether 25 percent, or as many as 60 percent, of the world's people will face shortages of fresh water that seriously constrain both food production and economic development," he says.

In large part, the United Nations, along with PAI and other organizations, attribute slowing population growth to people's growing desire for smaller families, coupled with the availability of contraception. More educational opportunities for women, marriage later in life, legal abortion, urbanization and lower infant mortality rates are factors that also contribute to this predicted population growth decline.

A barrage of articles announcing the end of the population explosion followed the 1996 release of the U.N.'s predictions of slower growth rates. Major newspapers across the United States, including USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times Magazine, all declared that there is no longer cause for concern about future population growth.

Not so, says PAI.

While overall global population growth is slowing, the number of people living under water-stressed conditions, especially in Africa, is expected to increase four-fold, to nearly two billion people, by the middle of the next century, according to PAI's report.

Water shortages are likely to constrain food production and economic development -- and potentially provoke conflict between nations or within regions, the report warns.

By 2050 there is likely to be strong competition over fresh water in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where populations are continuing to grow and strain already short supplies, says PAI's report -- based on the most recent United Nations population projections.

At the regional level, increasingly fierce competition over water could turn into outright conflict -- most notably in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile River Basins, and in Southern Africa.

"The economic stresses and regional conflicts that are arising in water-short regions point to water scarcity as one of the most serious challenges faced by the international community," says Engelman.

As each country in the Euphrates River system, where Iraq, Syria, and Turkey share one water source, tries to meet its development needs, the demand for water for personal use, irrigation and industry will increase. Conflicts will arise if as projected, these countries combined populations are expected to grow 50 percent over the next 30 years, says PAI.

The Nile river system will be under even greater strain as population in northeastern Africa is projected to grow from 140 to 340 million
While the Middle East and North Africa are the regions most affected by water scarcity today, sub-Saharan Africa will be increasingly affected over the next half century, as its population doubles or even triples in size.

Within the next 10 years, all five countries projected to become water scarce are in Africa. Researchers see water crises looming in Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, Somalia and South Africa, where existing inadequate water supplies fail to meet the demands will be worsened by rapid population growth.

Disputes in southern Africa over water resources is also beginning to mount, where Namibia, one of the driest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and neighboring Botswana are engaged in a dispute over the use of the Okavango River.

Traditionally, this was not a problem in many regions of Namibia, where the mostly rural population would simply move to other sources of water during the dry season, say PAI. "However, rapid population growth and more densely populated human settlements are hampering this migratory lifestyle," says the report.

To meet the needs of its growing population in recent years, Namibia wants to extend its already massive network of pipelines by diverting more water from the Okavango River, which runs throughout the year along its north-eastern border with Angola, pumping it uphill to a network of canals and pipelines linked to its capital city.

Botswana, on the other hand, contends that the diversion could damage the biologically diverse marshlands along the Okavango Delta, which is the country's main tourist attraction, and dry up the floodplain along which most of the delta's inhabitants live.

Last month, communities in the Delta sent a letter of protest to the Namibian government urging it to find alternatives to a proposed water pipeline that would divert water from the river upstream.

The Nile river system in northeastern Africa is also expected to be under even greater strain than it is now as population is projected to grow from 140 million to 340 million by the year 2025.

On the other hand, for India, Pakistan, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador, the new population projections indicate a future somewhat less threatened by waters shortages. While their populations are still growing, the lower rate of growth will make a crucial difference to their water situation over the next few decades, says the report.

"Fresh water is a finite resources in a world where human numbers -- and needs -- are still going up," says the other co-author Tom Gardener-Outlaw. "With slower population growth, countries like Sri Lanka and El Salvador gain another ten years before they fall into water stress -- time to develop much needed water conservation strategies."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 5, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page