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High-tech, low-cost solutions needed to conserve water supply

flooded field
Most of the world's farmers still irrigate by flooding their fields  

January 4, 2000
Web posted at: 3:04 p.m. EST (2004 GMT)

In this story:

Water too cheap in developed nations

Outmoded toilets and Victorian plumbing

Recycling water for a Mexican marsh


From Correspondent Siobhan Darrow

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following report is the second in a two-part series exploring the issues of water supply in distribution facing the next millennium. The first installment was posted Monday.]

(CNN) -- To ensure safe water into the next century, people must first look to agriculture, which uses two-thirds of all water taken from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Saving the environment
VideoCorrespondent Siobhan Darrow looks at agricultural use of water
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Windows Media 28K 80K

Most of the world's farmers still irrigate the way their ancestors did 5,000 years ago, flooding their fields, losing most of the water meant to benefit crops.

Israel has developed a method called drip irrigation that is 95 percent efficient. Half the country's farmers use it. So do some in Southern California.

But the technique is too expensive for most farmers in developing countries. Worldwide less than 1 percent of irrigated land uses drip irrigation.

Drip irrigation is an expensive, extremely efficient way to water crops  

Water too cheap in developed nations?

While technologies are too costly for poorer countries to adopt, many experts complain that water is generally too cheap in industrialized nations.

"We need to price water to ensure the adoption of adequate technology and to avoid waste," says Ismail Serageldin of the World Water Council.

In California, industrial use dropped 30 percent between 1980 and 1990 because laws required companies to reuse their wastewater. The cost of the treatment process compelled businesses to conserve water.

Some countries rely on desalinization plants that can turn saltwater into drinking water, but they are expensive too.

William Cosgrove of the World Water Council cautions that more than high-tech measures will be required in the future.

"It's not just enough to apply technical solutions anymore. It requires a change in the way of life," he said.

Desalinization is the process of removing the salt fom sea water to make it drinkable  

Outmoded toilets, Victorian plumbing

Some of the changes are relatively easy. Toilets are big water guzzlers in the home. Installing low-flush versions save gallons daily. Stopping leaky water pipes also would save much water. In Britain almost half of drinking water is lost to Victorian-era plumbing.

In parts of the world that do not have plumbing, where poor sanitation spreads diseases, simple hygiene practices can make a significant difference.

"Until (we) take sanitation out of the closet and talk about it, people will not realize the importance and get the lessons that need to be pursued," said Richard Jolly of the U.N. Development Program.

Toilets are responsible for most of the water consumption in a home  

Jolly estimated that it would cost an extra $10 billion a year for 10 years to provide water and sanitation worldwide.

"That's about what Europe spends on alcohol for one year. It's about the same the U.S. spends on perfume for one year," he said.

Water supply experts say the world must consider the needs of aquatic life as well.

"There's a growing understanding that natural systems have been neglected over the history of water development this century," said James Morrison of the Pacific Institute. "Unless fundamental changes are made and more attention is given to those systems, we will lose them entirely."

Like the Cienega de Santa Clara marsh in Mexico, a habitat supporting not only birds and fish but people as well, Mexican and U.S. officials are working to reverse human-induced damage to part of the Colorado River delta.

Cienega de Santa Clara marsh  

Recycling water for a Mexican marsh

Now recycled agricultural water from Yuma, Arizona, is replenishing a marsh 60 miles south of the U.S. border. The effort has temporarily restored the marsh but its future is in doubt.

"We need to commit a relatively small amount of water to allow it to flow into Mexico for ecological reasons. We're not talking about a major undertaking. We're talking about a little bit of commitment to do the right thing," said Bill Snape of Defenders of Wildlife.

Because of competition for every drop of water from growing populations on both sides of the border, there is no guarantee water will continue to be delivered. It is a scenario played out around the world as agriculture, industry, and residential populations all vie for the same resource.

International agreements, new technologies and improved efficiency are all necessary to preserve the world's water supply, but effective water conservation and protection could require more profound changes.

"Every individual needs to be sensitive to the value of water and to start treating it with respect," Cosgrove said. Not merely as a resource to be managed, but as a force of nature whose destiny is interwoven with our own.

Part 1: Water, water everywhere -- but will there be enough to drink?
January 3, 2000
y: Droughts come and go, but growing demand for water remains
August 12, 1999

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