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Nuggets of Hope in the Face of Bleak Outlook for Freshwater

This week Tasha Eichenseher covers the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. Organized every three years by the World Water Council, an international platform based in France, the World Water Forum is the largest international event in the field of water. Its purpose is to support discussions and formulate proposals toward the solution of international water issues. Previous forums were held in France, the Netherlands, Japan, and Mexico.

More than 20,000 people from at least 175 countries are buzzing around Istanbul this week talking about water.

The freshwater that forms Earth’s rivers, lakes, aquifer, glaciers, and wetlands — the same water that fills our glasses and toilet bowls — connects every one of the planet’s 6.5 billion citizens and myriad aquatic species.

Water is embedded in every unit of energy we use, meal we eat, and piece of clothing we wear.

It is essential for life, yet, according to the United Nations, there are nearly 1 billion people without access to a safe, clean source, and 2.5 billion without access to adequate sanitation. [Read the National Geographic News story: Lack of Toilets Harming Health of Billions, UN Report Says.]

Policy makers, economists, scientists, engineers, development agencies, business leaders, and environmental organizations have convened in Turkey for the 5th World Water Forum to find a way to avoid water bankruptcy and achieve global water security.

They face an enormous challenge. According to a report the U.N. released yesterday, the future looks bleak.

Population growth, the financial crisis, and poverty coupled with climate change put a wrench in plans to provide basic water service, according to the report, which looked at water management in 25 countries.

African countries are in the worst shape. In Sudan, where rainfall has decreased over the last several years, nearly 55 percent of all freshwater is used for agriculture, and water use for crops is expected to double by 2025.

Asia and island countries in the Pacific are home to almost 60 percent of the world population, but only 36 percent of the planet’s freshwater.

World-Water-logo.jpgIn the decades before 2000, China had an average of about 66 billion cubic meters of renewable water resources. Today, because of pollution and other factors, the country has less than an estimated 49 billion cubic meters while demand has steadily risen.

In Europe, climate change may cause sea level rise that floods two-thirds of the Netherlands — where 96 percent of the population lives below sea level. And Istanbul itself faces significantly diminished groundwater due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and unsustainable extraction.

“Inaction is no longer an option, and stepping out of the single sector ‘water box’ is necessary to properly address mounting problems,” according to the report, referring to how water decisions have traditionally not been linked to other critical issues such as finance

It is possible at this mega-conference to drown in technical jargon and policy analysis — talk of frameworks, capacity, transparency, strategies and the millennium development goals.

But buried in the halls of the conference center — part of which is a renovated factory that once provided fez hats and clothing for the Ottoman army — there are success stories that can rise above the gloom and doom scenarios.

The U.N. report highlights a handful: irrigation efficiency improvements in Tunisia; decreased water use in Estonia; and legal rights to a minimum quantity of drinking water in Argentina.

Stay tuned for more.

Istanbul. Photo by David Boyer



Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.

Tasha Eichenseher’s attendance at the 5th World Water Forum is sponsored by Media21 — a Switzerland-based journalism foundation that brings reporters and producers from around the globe to work together on coverage of major issues such as human rights, climate change, and health.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]