Volume 15 Number 6
Will Our Children Have Water to Drink?
01 December 2002
The Johannesburg Earth Summit highlighted the urgent need of many countries to secure greater freshwater supplies. Alan Ervine talks to Kenneth Noble about what can be done to turn aspiration into reality.
‘Water, water everywhere; and not a drop to drink.’
The lament of the ancient mariner could soon have a prophetic ring to it. As highlighted by the recent Earth Summit in South Africa, we live on a planet which is largely covered by water but is increasingly short of drinkable supplies.
The problem, according to water specialist Alan Ervine, Professor of Civil Engineering at Glasgow University, is that whilst the human population has grown exponentially during the last two millennia the amount of fresh water has gradually declined. The cost is all too real: ‘It is startling to realize that a child dies every nine minutes somewhere in the world due to unsafe water or poor sanitation.’
Yet the technology to provide clean water has been around for ‘at least 2,000 years. Glasgow had better sanitation 100 years ago than most of Africa has today. The technology is not rocket science. It is well known and just requires the will to do something.’
Ervine’s adopted land of Scotland—he was born and raised in Northern Ireland—is not about to suffer from water stress. He does some ‘back of an envelope’ calculations and announces that there will be 20,000 cubic meters of water per year for every Scot for the foreseeable future. But he is concerned about the many countries which are facing a crisis. Gambia, for example, uses only three litres of freshwater per person per day—barely six per cent of the amount that international water expert Peter Gleick has recommended. Some 2.2 billion people live in countries where average domestic use falls below this ideal.
Water has a political dimension, too, of course. ‘Water stress could lead to major problems,’ says Ervine, referring to the ‘frightening prospect’ of water-generated wars, particularly in the Middle East. ‘Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir is the Sea of Galilee. Its catchment area is in the region of the Golan Heights that was part of Syria until the Israeli occupation of 1967. It does not require great imagination to understand why this may be a flashpoint in the future, particularly if Palestinians continue to receive less water per head than their Jewish neighbours.
‘Similarly with Turkey damming the Euphrates for power and irrigation, this will reduce Syria’s water supply. Syria is thinking of doing the same thing, which will leave Iraq struggling.’
However alarming the implications, the prognosis is widely agreed—by 2025, when the world’s population could have increased by three billion, there could be a 20 per cent shortfall in drinkable water.
The World Water Council—set up as a result of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992—has warned that, by that time, ‘water stress will increase significantly in more than 60 per cent of the world, unless drastic steps are taken to improve infrastructure and the management of resources’.
Ervine feels that the recent Johannesburg Earth Summit was ‘a significant step forward in that it highlighted to the world the plight of one billion people with unsafe drinking water and at least twice that number with no sanitation’.
Countries facing a water crisis fall, broadly, into two categories. In large parts of Africa there is sufficient water but a lack of infrastructure often means that people have to walk long distances to fetch what they need. Whereas a whole swathe of countries from the Middle East to China often have the necessary infrastructure but are using water at a rate that cannot be sustained. Some countries are able to build desalination plants but these are costly and use a great deal of energy. Exporting water from one country to another is equally difficult.
Can the collective will of the 50,000 delegates in Johannesburg amount to anything more than hot air, Ervine wonders. ‘The path of cynicism is easy but the path of delivering improvements on the ground is much more challenging.’
In the past, many large-scale schemes, such as those funded by the World Bank or similar organizations, failed to take account of local conditions. ‘The problem is not in the technical solution so much as in the social impact of the scheme—how it can be used, maintained and managed by local people once the experts have left; the environmental impact; and the cost to the country involved.’
Ervine’s students might, for example, be able to design a large dam for Africa but its sustainability would be in doubt if it silted up, the turbines broke down with no replacements, or the local people contracted diseases due to the reservoir causing an increase in mosquito populations.
But good work is being done. Ervine is enthusiastic about the efforts of NGOs such as UK-based WaterAid: ‘They work with local people at the local level to provide schemes to suit local needs.’ WaterAid was created by the UK water industry in 1981, and—according to the Sutton and East Surrey Water company publication, Pipelines—has since raised around £90 million and helped more than seven million people gain access to safe water and sanitation.
Tear Fund, says Ervine, recommend a number of measures including rediscovering traditional methods of water conservation; and redoubling our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases which may be responsible for both increasing droughts and increasing floods.
But such efforts are not enough. What is needed is ‘nothing short of a change in the attitude of mankind. Until we see our beautiful but fragile earth in the context of the needs of our children’s children, and can inspire the new generation to train as the engineers and health workers and environmental scientists who are prepared to dedicate their careers to solving some of the great global issues, then the future may be bleak.’ He lists these issues as: to eliminate world poverty, to provide a clean drinking water supply for the whole globe, to ensure adequate sanitation for the poorer nations, to restore the global environment, to restore the rain forest, to clean up our rivers, oceans and the atmosphere.
‘This should be the real quest for science and technology. The work will be hard with many setbacks. It will require courage and sacrifice. It will be an act of love.’