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World Water Day: Scarce Resource, Growing Populations

Wednesday is World Water Day – a reminder that water is a precious resource and is in scare supply in some regions of the world. Climate forecasts say that some regions – including parts of Africa – will become drier in the coming years.

That raises questions about how to supply a limited resource to growing populations. Those questions are being considered at the South African Water Research Commission in Pretoria.

Dr. Steve Mitchell is the commission’s director for water-linked ecosystems. He spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about some of the major issues affecting water resources:

“South Africa, like so many South African countries, is a water-scarce country and so we are having to make our water go further than we’ve had to in the past. So the main issues we’re dealing with now on that front are water saving, water conservation measures, cleanup production, which uses less water as well, improvement of irrigation techniques. But then of course taking beyond that because we have such a large third world component in our population sanitation is a very important issue.”

The problem not only involves a scarce resource, but a growing population as well.

He says, “There’s more people to be served by the existing resource. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, the projections for climate change would indicate that at least the western part of the country, but also the subcontinent, of course, are going to become drier over the next 50 odd years. So where people have been served by existing water resources in the past, the indication is we’re going to have to find new resources or change them.”

One possibility is desalination because technology in the area has improved greatly over the years.

Although Mitchell is a scientist, he also considers the political ramifications of limited water resources.

“The political issues are enormous. Sixty percent of South Africa’s river basins are shared with neighboring countries. In several of those we are pretty much the upstream user. We have a large responsibility for that to make sure enough water passes through into Mozambique, into Namibia. And on the Limpopo (River), of course, that’s Zimbabwe and Botswana as well.