Report: Water crisis hits rich countries

Posted on August, 16 2006

A new WWF report shows that a combination of climate change, drought and loss of wetlands, along with poorly thought out water infrastructure and resource mismanagement in developed countries, is contributing to the world's water crisis.
Water crises, long seen as a problem of only the poorest, are increasingly affecting some of the world’s wealthiest nations, warns WWF ahead of World Water Week. The global conservation organization’s report, Rich countries, poor water, is one of the first comprehensive overviews of water issues in the developed world.

The report shows that a combination of climate change and drought and loss of wetlands that store water, along with poorly thought out water infrastructure and resource mismanagement, is making this crisis truly global. The report highlights impacts of water problems in countries such as Australia, Spain, Japan, and the UK, and the US.

“Economic riches don’t translate to plentiful water,” says Jamie Pittock, Director of WWF’s Global Freshwater Programme. “Water must be used more efficiently throughout the world. Scarcity and pollution are becoming more common and responsibility for finding solutions rests with both rich and poor nations.”

In Europe, countries on the Atlantic are suffering recurring droughts, while water-intensive tourism and irrigated agriculture are endangering water resources in the Mediterranean. In Australia, the world’s driest continent, salinity is a major threat to a large proportion of its key agricultural areas.

Despite high rainfall in Japan, contamination of water supplies is an extremely serious issue in many areas. In the United States, large areas are already using substantially more water than can be naturally replenished. This situation will only be exacerbated as global warming brings lower rainfall, increased evaporation and changed snowmelt patterns.

Some of the world’s thirstiest cities, such as Houston and Sydney, are using more water than can be replenished. In London, leakage and loss is estimated at 300 Olympic-size swimming pools daily due to ageing water mains. It is however notable that cities with less severe water issues such as New York tend to have a longer tradition of conserving catchment areas and expansive green areas within their boundaries.

“The next group of rapidly developing economies has the opportunity not to repeat the errors of the past and to avoid the costs of saving damaged freshwater ecosystems,” says Pittock.

“Regrettably, it appears that the bulk of these nations have already been seduced by major infrastructure plans, such as large dams, with inadequate consideration of whether such projects will meet water needs or inflict human and natural costs.”

In Brazil, despite leading the world with its national water resources plan, concerns remain over some existing dam proposals. In India, much of its agriculture is under threat from rampant overexploitation of water resources. Elsewhere, China has raised international concerns over the scale and possible ecological and human costs of some of its massive water infrastructure plans.

“The crisis in rich nations is proof that wealth and infrastructure are no insurance against scarcity, pollution, climate change and drought," adds Pittock. "They are clearly no substitute for protecting rivers and wetlands, and restoring floodplain areas."

The water problems affecting rich and poor countries alike are a wake-up call to return to protecting nature as the source of water. As we approach World Water Week (being held in Stockholm, Sweden, from 20–26 August), governments must find solutions for both rich and poor, which include repairing ageing infrastructure, reducing contaminants, and changing irrigation practices in the way we grow crops.

For further information:
Lisa Hadeed, Communications Manager
WWF Global Freshwater Programme
Tel: +41 22 364 9030

Brian Thomson, Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9554
More droughts could happen in Africa as a consequence of climate change. Sahel, Mali. Sahel, Mali.
© WWF / John E. Newby