Water scarcity is a growing concern among nations of the world. To raise awareness about the issue, to promote conservation practices and to motivate people to manage water in a more sustainable way, the United Nations has proclaimed 2003 the International Year of Fresh Water. In this first of four reports, VOA's Rosanne Skirble examines one of the most serious environmental challenges of our time.

Fresh water is essential for life on earth. We need water for basic human needs, for food production, for energy and for the health of regional and global ecosystems. Yet, today, 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water. Two point four billion people lack access to adequate sanitation.

In remarks in New York at the kick-off ceremony for the International Year of Freshwater, United Nations Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette warned that the world water situation could worsen if unsustainable practices persist.

"Freshwater issues are at the heart of humankind's hopes for peace and development in the 21st century. The threat to health, food security, the environment, to stability itself is clear," she says. "If we continue with business as usual, it will take a little more than two decades for two-thirds of the world's population to be living in moderate to severe water stress. We cannot let that happen. First, because it would condemn so many people to poverty, poor health and despair and second because the investments required to avert this catastrophic scenario are within our means and not beyond."

Nitin Desai, Secretary General of the U.N.'s 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development reminded those gathered at the launch of the International Year of Freshwater that many governments have already committed themselves to the goal of improving the world's water supplies.

More than two years ago, leaders at the U.N.'s Millennium Summit pledged to cut in half the number of people without safe drinking water by the year 2015. Last year in Johannesburg, officials reaffirmed that promise and agreed to cut in half the number of people without proper sanitation services, also by 2015.

Mr. Desai who directs the U.N. Office for Economic and Social Affairs - said success in reaching those goals will require major reforms in water management, a strategic objective that involves a much broader political, technical and social agenda. "Because if you want to get water management right, you have to get a lot of other things right. You have to get land use right," he says. "You have to get human settlement policy right. You have to get agriculture policy right. You even have to even get industrial and energy policy right, if you really want to have a sound management of water resources."

Since the Johannesburg Summit, more than twenty water and sanitation initiatives have been announced by governments, international agencies, non-governmental groups and private partners. Those initiatives have been backed by funding pledges of more than $1 billion.

The United Nations estimates that it costs $30 billion a year to meet current drinking water supply and sanitation needs, and that between $14 and $30 billion more per year would be needed to meet global water and sanitation targets.

This March, at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, the United Nations will release the first edition of the World Water Development Report, a comprehensive study of today's water problems and recommendations for meeting future water demands. Experts say the response to that report by governments and international donor groups will be an important test of the political will that exists to solve the world's worsening water crisis.

In the next report on gloabl water scarcity, VOA's Rosanne Skirble discusses the growing problem of water scarcity with water expert, Sandra Postel, author of "Pillars of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?"