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UN warns of looming water crisis

Friday, 22 March, 2002, BBC World News

Two in three people will face water shortages by 2025

More than 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by the year 2025 if the world continues consuming water at the same rate, the United Nations has warned. A new report released to mark World Water Day on Friday says that another 2.5 billion people will live in areas where it will be difficult to find sufficient fresh water to meet their needs.

The looming crisis is being blamed on mismanagement of existing water resources, population growth and changing weather patterns. The areas most at risk from the growing water scarcity are in semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

But according to new figures from the UN Economic Commission for Europe at least 120 million people living in Europe - one in seven of the population - still do not have access to clean water and sanitation.

Not accessible

The commission is calling for greater effort to be made in the developed world to conserve and protect water resources. The UN body says wasted water is costing Europe around $10bn a year.

According to the report, by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an estimated 1.1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water, 2.5 billion lack proper sanitation and more than five million people die from waterborne diseases each year - 10 times the number of casualties killed in wars around the globe.

Less than 3% of the Earth's water is fresh and most of it is in the form of polar ice or too deep underground to reach.

Pollution danger

The amount of fresh water that is accessible in lakes, rivers and reservoirs is less than a quarter of 1% of the total. "Even where supplies are sufficient or plentiful, they are increasingly at risk from pollution and rising demand," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a message to mark water day.

There are fears that future competition for water could spark conflicts. "Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict," Mr Annan said.

The IAEA is calling for the launch of a "blue revolution" to conserve water supplies and develop new ones. "The simple fact is that there is a limited amount of water on the planet, and we cannot afford to be negligent in its use. We cannot keep treating it as if it will never run out," the IAEA's director, Mohamed El-Baradei, said.

Poorest at risk

Water ministers from 22 African countries have called for a regional and global alliance, backed by international funding, to tackle water and sanitation problems. Among the solutions, they say, are the development of desalination facilities that can turn salt water into drinking water.

The UN says that the implications of the water crisis will be extreme for the people most affected, who are among the world's poorest, limiting their ability to grow crops, which they need to survive.

Agriculture consumes about 70% of the world's available water, but experts say that, where there are competing demands for water, small farmers are the first to lose their supply.