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Op-ed: The green answers for a world going dry

By Vinod Thomas and Ronald Parker

This op-ed appeared in the South China Morning Post, Mar 30, 2010 

Faced with mounting water shortages, worsening water pollution and growing risks from climate change and extreme weather patterns, countries - especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East - increasingly need to manage their water resources carefully. This calls for actions that connect water use with environmental care, a link that has proven tough to establish.

As a result, water stress affects every continent of the globe. About 700 million people in over 40 countries are affected by shortages, led by Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger. And water stress is about more than water availability. Rapid economic growth increases industrial water use and pollution.

Human encroachment on water environments is also a growing problem. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, 75 per cent of the world's population will live in coastal areas, putting at risk wetlands that help clean the water environment as well as exposing hundreds of millions of people to the water-related hazards associated with climate change.

One-third of the World Bank's loan portfolio involves water projects. They have addressed many sectors such as irrigation, groundwater, hydropower, floods and drought, water supply and sanitation, watershed management, rivers, lakes, coastal zones, inland waterways and fisheries. Loan commitments in the past decade were about US$55 billion, with China and India topping the list of borrowers, followed by Brazil and Indonesia.

The challenge worldwide is to meet today's water needs while putting in place innovative strategies to address future requirements. The areas for emphasis fall into five main areas along the axis of water development and environmental management. First, investments need to deal with water shortages, and water-poor nations must make sustainability central to their development plans. Second, groundwater conservation needs to be a priority; the most severe groundwater depletion is in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Third, the restoration of degraded environments needs more attention. Fourth, sanitation urgently needs to be addressed. The UN estimates that 1.8 billion people will still not have access to basic sanitation in 2015. Fifth, investments in water supply need to be coupled with the management of demand; even though it's difficult, greater cost recovery in water projects is needed.

Even when these priorities are known, it has been difficult to translate them into action. When the key players sit down to make decisions about water, the environment gets short shrift. Seldom is there support for rescuing a falling aquifer if water can still be extracted, or for restoring protective marshes and wetlands.

Political support for reform is often hindered by serious gaps in understanding a country's water situation. Better data, greater efforts at monitoring and disclosures of findings are crucial to raising resources and mobilising action.

Vinod Thomas is director general and Ronald S. Parker is a consultant at the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group in Washington

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