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NATURE

Water, water everywhere -- but will there be enough to drink?

Yellow river
China's once plentiful Yellow River is now running dry  

January 3, 2000
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EST (1954 GMT)


In this story:

Rivers running dry

'Solutions' that damage

A fount of peace?

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



From Correspondent Siobhan Darrow

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is Part I of a two-part series exploring the issues of water supply in distribution facing the next millennium. Read the second installment here.]

(CNN) -- Water is the most common substance on Earth, covering more than 70 percent of the planet's surface. Water makes up two-thirds of our own bodies.

But the abundance of water is an illusion.

 VIDEO
VideoCorrespondent Siobhan Darrow looks at agricultural use of water
Windows Media 28K 80K
 

Only a tiny fraction of the planet's water is drinkable. Ninety-seven percent is sea water, which is expensive and difficult to desalinate. About 2 percent is caught in polar ice caps. That leaves just 1 percent to sustain life in the next millennium.

Already, 26 countries are classified as water-stressed -- meaning they don't have enough water to sustain agriculture and economic development. A third of Africans live without enough water, as do most in the Middle East.

"Looking out to 2025, the number of people living in water-stressed countries will increase six and a half times," says Sandra Postel, an author and water analyst.

pollution
More than half of the world's major rivers are going dry or are polluted  

Rivers running dry

Much of the world relies on natural underground storage tanks called aquifers. Humankind is rapidly using up those reserves, digging ever-deeper wells and lowering water levels in every continent. Chinese officials are even considering moving the capital from Beijing because of chronic water shortages.

"Up until a hundred years ago, we were hardly using but a fraction of the Earth's water," says William Cosgrove of the World Water Council. "Today we are using more than half of it and the result is we are reaching a dangerous point that is not sustainable."

More than half of the major rivers are going dry or are polluted, endangering the health and livelihood of those who depend on them.

In 1998, 25 million people fled their homes because of water crises in river basins -- a higher number than refugees of war. By 2025, environmental refugees could quadruple.

"In developing countries, about a quarter of the population don't have access to clean water," says Richard Jolly of the U.N. Development Program. "That's 1.3 billion people."

More than twice that number -- almost 3 billion people -- don't have decent sanitation, causing millions of deaths each year. A child dies every eight seconds from drinking contaminated water.

'Solutions' that damage

In China, the Yellow River was once the cradle of their civilization, nurturing China's northern plains. Some 3,600 miles long, it was known throughout history as China's sorrow, because of its tendency to flood.

Now it is causing distress for the opposite reason: it is running dry.

China is building the world's largest dam on the Yangtze River  

"Industry has expanded, agriculture has expanded and the population has boomed," says Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations. "But there has been no thought given to how to manage the resources of the Yellow River."

And grandiose plans are in the works to rearrange another river-- the Yangtze.

China is in the process of building the world's largest dam on the Yangtze. It's a controversial project expected to displace more than a million people and radically change the ecosystem for the entire region.

One needs only to look next door to the former Soviet Union to see the potential damage such solutions can cause.

The Aral Sea in the former Soviet Central Asia may provide a nightmarish glimpse of ecological disaster in the future.

When Soviet central planners decided to grow cotton in the desert, they diverted water from the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea to irrigate the fields. The sea has since shrunk to two-thirds of its size.

Ships lie in a sandy graveyard that once had water.

The old port town of Muynak is now 30 miles from the coast of the dying sea. Children suffer respiratory diseases, the cows are sick and the native fish are all gone.

colorafo
The Colorado river is one of the world's most stressed  

"It's one of the examples that really shows the close connection between the health of an aquatic ecosystem and community and the people that depend on the ecosystem," Postel says.

It's not only communist central planners but capitalists as well who meddle with the flow of rivers.

In the United States, the Colorado River is ranked as one of the worlds most stressed and over-committed rivers.

Dams harness its might waters and in dry years, not a single drop of the Colorado reaches the sea.

It took nearly 5,000 workers four and a half years, working 24-hour-a-day shifts, to build the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Ninety-six workers died during the construction of what was in its day the world's biggest dam.

The Hoover Dam was built to bring electricity to a vast area and water to the arid Western United States.

Las Vegas
Water diverted from the Colorado River is used to keep Las Vegas golf courses green  

It is an engineering wonder of our age, some say rivaling the pyramids. But in the future, as the disruption of the environment becomes more fully understood, experts studying water say it could stand as a testament to the folly of man's quest to tame nature.

The Colorado is the lifeblood of the burgeoning American Southwest, filling swimming pools and keeping Las Vegas' 48 golf courses lush.

Ever-thirsty Southern California uses 14 percent more than its allotment. Little water is left to flow downstream and nourish the Colorado delta in Mexico. As a result, the once-vibrant ecosystem there has turned into a parched and salty marsh.

"Our dollars would be better spent rejuvenating the delta, as opposed to growing more lettuce in the hot desert," says Bill Snape of Defenders of Wildlife.

But more than delta wildlife is as risk. An Indian tribe that has depended on the river for centuries is on the verge of extinction.

"For us, this river is life," says a Cocopah chief, "because the life, the soul, is what we call the river.

children
A child dies every eight seconds from drinking contaminated water  

A fount of peace?

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the strain of sharing water more acute than in the Middle East, where the shortage adds to tensions between nations. Some political leaders have warned that disputes over water could eventually lead to war, but it's been a long time since that's happened.

"If you look in history for the last water war -- you have to go back 4,500 years -- the only water war in history was between the city states of Lagash and Uma over irrigation rights on the Tigris River," says water rights expert Aaron Wolfe.

Today, the Tigris and Euphrates are again a source of potential conflict. Turkey's $32 billion dam and irrigation project will mean less water to downstream neighbors such as Syria and Iraq, who claim the project will rob them of water they need.

But there are hopeful signs between once-bitter enemies in the region. Jordan and Israel included a water agreement in their peace treaty.

"It's the first real treaty in the region that deals with water," says Middle East consultant Mary Morris. "Instead of threatening each other as adversaries, they have begun to come together."

Instead of stirring conflict, "the scarcity can be a catalyst for a miracle in the Middle East," she says, perhaps ushering in an era of cooperation.



RELATED STORIES:
Part 2: High-tech, low-cost solutions needed to conserve water supply
January 4, 2000
y: Droughts come and go, but growing demand for water remains
August 12, 1999

RELATED SITES:
World Water Council
World Water Vision
NRDC Online's Homepage
Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council
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