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New Report Highlights Coming Global Water Crisis - 2002-10-16

A controversial decision by Lebanon to start pumping water from a river that also supplies Israel has again spotlighted the growing shortage of water in many regions of the world. A new report issued in Washington Wednesday says the entire globe faces a water crisis unless nations reform the way they use the critical resource.

Of all the most basic human needs, water and air rank at the top of the list.

But according to the latest study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, many countries in the world already suffer severe water shortages.

The most absolutely water-scarce areas are still in the Middle East and North Africa," says Mark Rosegrant, is a senior researcher at the institute, and the report's lead author. "Some of the countries like Jordan, for example, and much of Egypt have very severe water scarcity problems. And so in terms of the sheer number of people, the areas most affected would be parts of northern and western India and the northern part of China, where water scarcity is increasing rapidly."

Water is at the heart of the dispute between Israel and Lebanon, but Mr. Rosegrant says it also is the cause of many domestic disputes.

"There will be considerable conflicts short of war, internationally, and we also find a lot of conflicts within given countries, so, even within a river basin between downstream users, who don't get as much water as they'd like, and the upstream users, who they [the people downstream] think are using more," said Mr. Rosegrant. "So, you oftentimes get more physically violent conflicts at that level."

Mr. Rosegrant says the new report warns of an imminent worldwide water crisis over the next two decades, unless governments take steps to change, by using less water and utilizing it more effectively.

"The main message to me is that you're not going to spend your way out of this problem through expanding water supplies and building new dams and so forth," he said. "The key to the future really is to make water use more efficient in all its uses. And furthermore, that that can't be done without an improvement in the incentives and management of existing, rural, existing systems."

The report estimates that by 2025, water scarcity will cause annual global losses of up to 350 million metric tons of food production.

Mr. Rosegrant said water is not oil, and has no substitutes. He points to some areas in the world, like China, where the supply of fresh water is already shrinking.

"The Yellow River rarely makes it to the ocean anymore, for example, because it's just fully exploited," he noted. "So in a very real sense, it's running out in that it's fully-appropriated for various kinds of productive uses."

He praised the Chinese government for moving in the right direction to address its water problems. Elsewhere, he also praised South Africa for passing reforms that strengthen water rights for farmers. But he said he feels the water situation in most sub-Saharan African countries is still getting worse, not better.