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Global Water Crisis Focus of World Environment Day - 2003-06-05

Thursday marks the United Nations' World Environment Day, and this year, the global body has set water as the theme. For Asia, water conservation holds special importance.

The United Nations says if nothing is done within the next 25 years, half of all people on the planet will not have enough fresh water for drinking and farming needs.

And while shrinking water resources threatens everyone, Asia's massive population growth puts it in special danger.

In Southern Asia, the United Nations says some 220 million people saw improved access to fresh water over the last decade. But it adds such progress was outstripped by population growth and so, now even more people do not have enough water.

Tim Higham, of the U.N. Environment Program's Asia-Pacific office, says that pressure on Asia's water resources will probably get worse over the short term.

"The region has the lowest per capita availability of fresh water because of the high population, and the countries that already suffer from water stress or scarcity would include Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Republic of Korea [South Korea]," he said. "And as population and consumption increase, so will that pressure on those water resources."

Mr. Higham says water conservation efforts in Asia and elsewhere should focus on agriculture, which consumes some 86 percent of fresh water usage.

"There is a whole mix of things that we need to do," he said. "Some of it is using crops that are drought resistant. Others include getting more "crop per drop" so we're much more efficient in the way we use the water."

In the face of mounting water problems, the UNEP and countries across the continent are using this year's World Environment Day to study the situation and discuss possible solutions.

In China, the government took the opportunity to admit to a massive water-quality crisis.

In its annual assessment, China's environmental authority reported that pollution levels from more than 40 percent of the nation's main river monitoring stations failed to meet even the lowest government standards.

Xie Zhenhua, director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, says the problem is especially serious in the reservoir formed by the newly built Three Gorges Dam. Water quality there, he says, will almost certainly continue to worsen.

Mr. Xie adds that society, and the news media in particular, has a role to play in policing compliance with China's environmental laws.

"We welcome our news organizations, our media, to strengthen our country's environmental supervision," he said. "Your criticism in particular has shown the problems for us to work on. This is the biggest support, the best form of supervision."

Other World Environment Day activities in the region include a speech contest in Pakistan, a radio forum on water issues in Western Samoa and a seminar on water and poverty in Thailand.

Not all of the day's events were confined to water conservation, however.

In Hong Kong, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace held a gathering to protest the territory's plans for a new incinerator.

Spokesperson Martin Baker says the Hong Kong government is too quick to rely on landfills and incinerators to solve its mounting waste management problem.

"Something like 18,000 tons of rubbish go into Hong Kong's landfills every day, and obviously we're running out of space," he said. "Now, their sole solution, it seems, is to incinerate it all."

Still, the rising crisis of water use remained Asia's main agenda for the day.

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported in his annual World Environment Day message, one in six people today lacks regular access to safe drinking water - a problem that will only grow without strong action.