|Addressing the Water Crisis - Healthier and more Productive Lives for Poor People (DFID, 2001, 58 p.)|
|1. The challenges|
1.4.1 Human consumption of freshwater threatens to push to the limits the capacity of nature to supply benefits to mankind. Increasing demands for water jeopardise flows in rivers and wetland ecosystems. In many areas, a failure or unwillingness to manage resources effectively has led to over-abstraction of surface waters; some rivers are reduced to a mere trickle by the time they reach the sea; and lakes have dried out or significantly reduced in size, for example the Aral Sea in Central Asia. This in turn disrupts aquatic and other terrestrial ecosystems, the quantity and quality of water supplies, and the wider natural environment. Problems include vegetation loss and siltation, which lead to reduced capacity of rivers and increased risk of flooding. Poor land-use practices (farming, deforestation and land drainage) have a major detrimental effect on the environment, and hence on its capacity to support and maintain hydrological processes.
1.4.2 Groundwater provides drinking water to more than 1.5 billion people daily and to many more in times of surface water scarcity. Increasing demand for water is causing rates of abstraction of groundwater that exceed the capacity of nature to replenish it and lead to serious declines in water tables. Groundwater mining is damaging both agricultural productivity and wetlands ecosystems, and causing subsidence and salt-water intrusion in coastal aquifers. In some countries the groundwater itself may even be contaminated with dangerous natural minerals, such as arsenic in Bangladesh.
1.4.3 Both groundwater and surface waters are being polluted by industrial wastewater discharges and agricultural runoff. This is increasingly leading to degradation of river and lake ecosystems, creating or exacerbating health problems. The poor are often the first people to suffer the ill-effects of pollution because they frequently have to abstract water downstream of pollution sources. In many places, poor sanitation is also a major problem, both in contributing to disease transmission, and in causing wider pollution, especially in urban environments. Wastewater disposal in these contexts becomes a major environmental and health issue that communities alone cannot afford to tackle. The challenge to protect water quality needs a major change of behaviour by industrial, agricultural and municipal polluters.
1.4.4 Global climate change and variability may also affect the management of water resources, as has been amply demonstrated in the last few years. The poor - whose livelihoods (often based on access to natural resources) are at risk from both the short-term natural disasters and the longer-term trends associated with climate change - are the most vulnerable. They are also least able to respond, for example by changing their economic activities or moving home.
1.4.5 The majority of natural disasters involve either excess or scarcity of water. Of all natural disasters, floods cause the greatest number of deaths and the most damage. Death tolls from floods are particularly high in developing countries, and floods affect poor people disproportionately as they tend to inhabit the most risk-prone, low-lying regions. Flood related deaths are not simply caused by drowning and direct injury, but also by associated water-related diseases or crop losses leading to famine. Both floods and droughts can adversely affect the survivors' livelihoods for many years.
1.4.6 Environmental issues are often poorly integrated into national water policies and plans. Institutions with responsibilities for environmental management seldom have political influence, and are frequently under-resourced, too centralised and inexperienced. Policy makers may not understand the links between effective environmental management and poverty elimination.6
6 Environmental issues are further dealt with in DFID Strategy Paper Achieving Sustainability: Poverty Elimination and the Environment.
1.4.7 All these factors present a considerable challenge to manage water resources and the environment well, on behalf of poor people in particular. The challenge is a combined one of eliminating poverty and achieving environmental sustainability. Attitudes that view people and the environment in competition for freshwater will only serve to exacerbate the crisis in the long term. Healthier and more productive lives for poor people go hand in hand with a healthier environment and vice versa.