Water is the most basic element upon which life depends, yet we seem to understand little about it. There is a developing water crisis in many parts of the world. Increased flooding and droughts are a symptom. But do the technical experts and the
politicians understand where the solution really lies?
The problems must be seen in the context of the falls in underground water levels in much of the world, and of catastrophic droughts in some regions while others, such as Mozambique, suffer catastrophic flooding.
What prompts these thoughts is the forthcoming Global Water Forum at The Hague from March 17 to 22. It will bring together thousands of experts, politicians and representatives of nongovernmental organisations to address the global freshwater crisis.
My fear is that, without serious analysis of the fundamental causes of the problem, this worthy conference will be reduced to considering the sort of unsustainable technological solutions that we have seen in the past. How long are we to go on ignoring the
simple fact that the main cause of the crisis is degradation of the natural environment, and particularly the water cycle?
All over the world, water-storing ponds, lakes and wetlands have been reclaimed, depleting water sources and vastly increasing the risk of flooding. At the same time, deforestation and the diversion of rivers have severely restricted the natural capacity
of the landscape to retain rainfall and refill underground water supplies.
We affect the water cycle by discharging pollutants both directly into aquatic ecosystems and on the land, from where they leach into waterways. We have released sufficient quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to change the climate of the
entire planet, seriously threatening wetlands and altering weather patterns so that more floods and droughts can be expected in the future. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the world’s six billion people have no access to safe drinking water, while almost
half lack adequate sanitation.
In terms of the human suffering caused, this is appaling. But the full implications are much wider: Degradation of water resources is the main barrier preventing the world from achieving shared goals of good public health, security of food supplies and a
better standard of living.
The only way to solve the water crisis is to stop assuming that we are competing with nature and welcome natural systems as our ally. For example, in India, where water tables have been falling rapidly, we can see how restoration of ecosystems and
watersheds goes hand in hand with efficient harvesting of rainwater. Underground water sources are refilled and continue to meet the basic needs of people.
In Argentina, studies show that the energy needs that will accompany expected economic growth can be served without recourse to large dams or nuclear power. Concentration on energy efficiency and renewable sources not only makes economic sense but also
represents perhaps our best hope of tackling the causes of climate change.
Conserving and restoring natural processes pays off. The US government has embarked on a programme to restore the ecosystems of the Everglades to ensure water supplies for growing populations in Miami and other cities. It is a pity that the degradation has
reached such a stage that taxpayers are obliged to meet a bill of $8 billion. In ancient times, water resources were recognised and respected in both practical and spiritual terms. It is time to remember the lessons of our forebears and change our
behaviour to protect our sources of water and the natural processes that create them. They are ultimately life support systems on which we depend.
Claude Martin is the director-general of WWF International
By arrangement with the International Herald Tribune