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Water Shortages To Increase

March 29, 2011

Water shortages around the world will become more severe as the world’s population continues to grow, especially in urban areas, according to a new study led by The Nature Conservancy’s Rob McDonald.

The study, “Urban Growth, Climate Change and Freshwater Availability,” looks at cities specifically with populations of 100,000 or more in developing countries, including those in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Close to one billion urban residents could face severe water famine by 2050 as climate change impacts urban areas around the world, with Indian cities potentially becoming the most highly affected areas, according to the study.

Global water shortages could have a huge impact on sanitation in some of the world’s fastest-growing urban areas, but also poses a risk on wildlife, especially if cities have to pump water from outside, according to the study.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that by 2050, if current trends continue, 993 million urban citizens will have to get by on less than 26 gallons of water each day — the daily minimum.

“Imagine living on less than a bathtub of water for all your daily needs: drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes and everything else,” said McDonald. “What we’ve found in our research is that — thanks to the combination of climate change and explosive urban population growth — this scenario could become a reality for billions of people around the globe by 2050.”

More than 150 million people currently live in cities with continuing water shortages of less than 26 gallons available each day. McDonald’s study projects that this number will grow to 1 billion by 2050, especially in Asia and Africa, because of demographic shifts.

In addition to those numbers, another 3.1 billion people in urban settings worldwide will have seasonal water shortages where at least one month out of a year 26 gallons or less of water will be available per person per day. China and India will be the most highly impacted countries because of rapid urbanization.

But, “don’t take the numbers as destiny. They’re a sign of a challenge,” McDonald told AFP.

It isn’t too late for urban and natural resource managers to prepare for these challenges. Landscape management and efficient use of water would help in reducing the impacts of climate change. Reducing agricultural, industrial and residential water consumption now is essential.

“Some new infrastructure will be needed, of course “” that’s the classic way cities have solved water shortages,” said McDonald. “But especially in parts of the world where there’s lots of cities, just going out farther or digging deeper to get water can’t be the only solution. Cities will need to get smarter and more efficient about how they use water, and recognize the role that natural places in the uplands play in supplying clean water to cities in the lowlands.”

But with growing shifts of rural people moving to more urbanized areas in countries such as China and India the impacts will be hard to avoid.

India’s six largest cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad — are already affected by water shortages. McDonald’s study suggests that more than 115 million people in the Ganges River delta alone would face serious water shortages by mid-century.

Although annual monsoons in India provide ample amounts of water, the country struggles to preserve the water from the wet to the dry season, said McDonald.

Another area that struggles despite seeing some of the world’s heaviest rainfall is West Africa. Cities in that country are also facing serious water famines, according to the study.

But, for those countries that are forced to take water from elsewhere outside their urban areas, it could pose serious threats on already fragile ecosystems as well. Potential urban water sources are home to nearly 300 fish species, of which 29 percent are found nowhere else, the study says.

“If cities are essentially drinking rivers dry, that has really bad effects on the fish and the reptiles and everything else in the river,” McDonald told AFP.

Agricultural reform and improved efficiency could go a long way now, as nearly half of the water in many poor countries is wasted due to leaks. “There is a lot of potential for increase in water-use efficiency in the agriculture sector, or indeed in the residential sector, to solve most of this challenge,” McDonald added.

International funding would be needed to help these poor nations “to ensure that urban residents can enjoy their fundamental right to adequate drinking water,” the study said.

Last year’s UN climate summit agreed on goals to set up a global fund to aid poor countries that are most affected by climate change. Member nations pledged target goals of 100 billion dollars a year beginning in 2020. 

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