UN Highlights World Water Crisis

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 5, 2003

To more than two billion people, fresh, pure water is more valuable than gold.

Water—Two Billion People are Dying for It! is the theme of World Environment Day, an annual event celebrated on June 5—today.

"One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water; over twice that number—2.4 billion—lack access to adequate sanitation," said Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. The event is sponsored by the UN to highlight important environmental issues facing the planet.

Despite the fact that 75 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water, and three-quarters of that is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover. Only 0.3 percent of the water is surface water, found in rivers and lakes. The rest is buried deep in the ground.

In many regions of the world, fresh water, both groundwater and surface water, is being used faster than it can be replaced. West Asia faces the greatest threat. Over 90 per cent of the region's population is experiencing severe water stress.

But the problem is not confined to the developing world. In the United States, 400 million cubic meters (520 million cubic yards) of groundwater is being removed from aquifers annually in Arizona; about double the amount being replaced by recharge from rainfall. In Spain, more than half of the nearly 100 aquifers are over-exploited.

Already about one-third of the world's population lives in countries suffering from moderate-to-high water stress, according to the most recent Global Environment Outlook (GEO-3) report. Water stress is defined as areas where water consumption is more than 10 percent of renewable freshwater resources.

The GEO-3 scientists project that more than half the people in the world could be living in severely water-stressed areas by 2032.

Dying for Water

When access to water is within one kilometer (0.62 miles) of a dwelling, meaning it would take about 30 minutes a day to collect water, the average consumption is 20 liters (5 gallons) per day per person, according to a 2003 joint report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. In homes with multiple taps, the average daily consumption is 100 to 200 liters (roughly 25 to 50 gallons) per person.

If the water source is farther than one kilometer, per capita consumption drops to around five liters (a little more than a gallon) per day, if that.

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