The myths and facts of freshwater

Posted on March, 14 2006

WWF Global Freshwater Programme Director Jamie Pittock writes on current freshwater issues in the lead-up to the World Water Forum.

By Jamie Pittock

More than one billion people worldwide do not have access to clean freshwater. More than two billion do not have adequate sanitation services and the annual death toll from water-borne diseases is estimated at more than five million. In addition, the past 30 years have seen a 50 per cent decline in populations of freshwater species, the fastest rate of decline as compared with species living in marine and forest ecosystems.

With statistics like this, it’s time to be worried. With so many people around the world experiencing water shortages, it’s time to act to preserve what’s left of our freshwater resources.

As thousands of participants gather in Mexico to attend the fourth World Water Forum, a multi-stakeholder meeting aimed at raising the awareness on international water issues and influencing water policy makers at the global level, they should know the myths and facts, and more importantly, practical solutions in addressing the planet’s water crisis.

Myth: Dams will reduce the water crisis by storing water and generating hydro-electricity, and will not have a negative impact on the environment.

Fact: There are over 48,000 large dams in operation worldwide. Many of these dams, as well as those under construction, are threatening the world’s largest and most important rivers. A recent scientific report shows that over 60 per cent of the world’s 227 largest rivers have been fragmented by dams, leading to the destruction of wetlands, a decline in freshwater species – including river dolphins, fish, and birds – and the forced displacement of millions of people. While dams can be an important provider of hydro-power, they do not always guarantee reliable supplies of water and electricity. Moreover, they are very expensive to build, vastly more expensive than measures to reduce demand by using water and electricity more efficiently. In some places money spent on dams would provide more socio-economic benefits if used to restore wetlands. Governments should opt for non-infrastructure alternatives to dam building, but if they are to be built, they should follow stringent guidelines set forth by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 in order to mitigate risk.

Myth: We need more water to grow more food.

Fact: We are already withdrawing 54 per cent of the world’s accessible freshwater sources, with the agriculture sector alone using up to 70 per cent of that. Of that 70 per cent, more than half is wasted through inefficient irrigation methods. In countries where some of the world’s “thirstiest” crops – cotton, rice and sugar – are grown, new farm practices ensure that scarce water resources are being used in more productive ways. In South Africa, for example, better practices such as cooperative farming for smallholders, farm planning and drip irrigation schemes have seen water productivity rise significantly and downstream erosion and pollution decrease. In India, farmers have developed an efficient rice irrigation system that is increasing yields by 20-50 per cent, while drawing much less water from the environment. High priority should be given to using water more wisely and supporting farmers and irrigation managers to use farm practices that enable them to produce more food with less water.

Myth: Freshwater habitats are being conserved at the expense of people.

Fact: WWF case studies from Colombia, Brazil, South Africa and China have shown increased income, employment, and fish yield in conjunction with nature conservation projects by local communities. More than a third of the world’s 100 biggest cities – including New York, Jakarta, Tokyo, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Nairobi and Melbourne – rely on fully or partly protected forests in catchment areas for much of their drinking water. Well-managed natural forests minimize the risk of landslides, erosion and sedimentation. They also substantially improve water purity by filtering pollutants, such as pesticides, and in some cases capture and store water. Countries would do well to adopt a forest watershed protection strategy as this can result in massive savings in the cost of water supply, as well as improve the health of local populations.

Knowing some of the facts, one would think responsible governments would be quick to implement cheaper, long-lasting solutions to managing their water supplies. Sadly, many still perceive large-scale infrastructure projects, like dams, as delivering results quicker than more efficient small-scale, community-based efforts. Governments have also failed to implement previously agreed upon national and global frameworks for sustainable water management.

The fact of the matter is that water is a finite resource, a supply that is quickly being exhausted and cannot be sustained by grandiose projects. Rather, we should be concentrating our efforts on equitable water allocation, watershed and wetland restoration, pollution reduction, and sustainable fisheries management. Conserving freshwater ecosystems is not some lofty goal preached by the environmental movement but a practical and vital building block for eradicating poverty. Conservation of freshwater ecosystems can result in clean drinking water and more effective agriculture and fisheries for the poor.

Conserving wetlands and rivers must be a priority for governments pursuing water security and poverty reduction. The 4th World Water Forum could be an important turning point if governments focus on the missing link: better management of rivers, wetlands and other freshwater bodies as the source of water for people and nature.

* Jamie Pittock is Director of WWF’s Global Freshwater Programme, Gland, Switzerland.
Conserving freshwater ecosystems is a vital building block for eradicating poverty.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK