Climate Change Depleting World Freshwater Resources: UN, Analysts

March 16, 2003
HONG KONG -- Finding ways of combating worldwide water shortages caused by global warming is one of the questions expected to top the agenda at the Third World water forum which gets underway on Sunday.

Record droughts have parched crops, decimated flocks and turned once-picturesque landscapes to desolate brown as scientists warn that climate change will strain already limited fresh water supplies.

"Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing at an unsustainable rate," a United Nations said in a report released to mark the International Year of Freshwater, ahead of Sunday's conference in Kyoto, Japan. "The future of many parts of the world looks bleak."

Climate change, or global warming, will in the future be responsible for one-fifth of global water scarcity because of its impacts on rainfall patterns, with more frequent and longer-lasting droughts baking wider expanses of land, the UN said in its report.

A 2001 report by the intergovernmental panel on climate change found that the average surface temperature of the earth has increased by roughly 0.6 degrees Celsius (one degree Fahrenheit) over the course of the 20th century, which has led to a decrease in snow and glacier cover.

And while precipitation has increased by 0.5 to 1.0 percent per decade over most mid and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as low altitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, increases in rainfall in tropical countries are not evident.

"Over the 20th century (1900 to 1995), there were relatively small increases in global land areas experiencing severe drought or severe wetness.

"In many regions, these changes are dominated by inter-decadal and multi-decadal climate variability, such as the shift in ENSO towards more warm events," the IPCC wrote. "In some regions, such as parts of Asia and Africa, the frequency and intensity of droughts have been observed to increase in recent decades."

Such droughts have compounded the already dire circumstances for millions, many of whom live in arid climates and under impoverished conditions that limit their access to fresh water.

A dry rainy season in eastern Ethiopia, for example, has threatened the lives of more than one million people, many of them children, as there is no way to irrigate even subsistence crops.

Efforts to rebuild the Central Asian nation of Afghanistan after 23 years of war have also been made more difficult by drought, with the water table in the capital, Kabul, dwindling at a rate of one meter (yard) every year.

The UN has set itself a goal of reducing by one billion the number of people with limited access to fresh water by 2015, and ways of achieving that target will be discussed at the Kyoto forum.

But funding for the 20 to 60 billion U.S. dollars the United Nations estimates is required by the water sector for water and sanitation is flowing as slowly as the drought-choked Niger River, which once watered most of western Africa.

"There is no chance that the United Nations can meet its target given the resources being made available and the general reluctance of donors to make hard decisions," said John Gerstle, the co-director of hydrosphere, a U.S.-based NGO which helps communities make water management decisions.

A report released in early March by a panel of experts led by former International Monetary Fund chairman Michel Camdessus, agreed, saying current funding levels of between four billion and 4.5 billion dollars annually must double to achieve the goal of solving water problems in the worlds poorest countries in the next 12 years.

"This is basically a question of giving our brothers and sisters what they need to drink," the panel said. "we see it as an indispensable investment if humanity wants to achieve its aims for health, universal primary education and reducing absolute poverty by half between now and 2015." (AFP)