Water, Water Everywhere, but Not Enough to Drink

ONE-THIRD of Earth's people may face either water ``stress'' or scarcity by the year 2025 if current trends in population growth and water use continue, researchers warn.

``On a planet whose surface is more than two-thirds covered by water, the illusion of abundance has clouded the reality that renewable fresh water is an increasingly scarce commodity,'' says a new study by Population Action International (PAI).

PAI targets water recycling, greater efficiency in use of water - especially in agriculture - and easier access to family planning as strategies for tackling the water dilemma.

In 1990, more than 335 million of the world's 5.3 billion people lived in water-stressed or water-scarce countries. Depending on how population expands, that number will rise to between 2.8 billion and 3.3 billion people. Countries experiencing water ``stress'' are defined as those with renewable fresh-water supplies below 1,700 cubic meters per person. Water scarcity comes when the supply falls below 1,000 cubic meters.

In 1990, 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East fell into those two categories. By 2025, at least 18 others will likely join the list, including Haiti, Peru, and Iran.

The world's oceans do not represent a realistic source of potential fresh water, because desalination is costly and energy-intensive. Desalination plants in Israel, for example, sit idle for those reasons.

The implications of increasing water scarcity include health problems and international conflict. Egypt, the Netherlands, Cambodia, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq all rely on out-of-country sources for more than two-thirds of their fresh water, and so are considered most vulnerable.

Water scarcity could affect the ability of third-world countries to develop their economies, since industrialization is water-intensive, especially in its early stages. Overall, agriculture accounts for two-thirds of water use worldwide, so as population grows, the demand for irrigated agriculture grows with it.

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