The sugarcane harvest to produce ethanol in the Bolivian department of Santa Cruz
Credit: Photo Stock
Water Shortage Threatens Half the Planet
Julio Godoy Interviews JONATHAN BAILLIE, of the Zoological Society of London
The paradox of development means that world population is consuming water to excess, while 2.8 billion people don't have nearly enough, says scientist Jonathan Baillie in this exclusive Tierramérica interview.
ROME, Jun 22 (Tierramérica).- If the world's governments fail to reach an immediate agreement on how to manage water resources, by 2030, half the planet's population will not have enough water to survive, scientist Jonathan Baillie told Tierramérica.
There are already 2.8 billion people who suffer from the lack of access to water, noted Baillie, director of environmental conservation at the Zoological Society of London, who participated in the Jun. 12-13 forum of the Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE) in Rome.
The forum, which drew lawmakers, academics and environmentalists, served as a preparatory meet for the G8 Summit (Group of Eight: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and United States) to take place in the Italian city of L'Aquila in July. The central theme of the GLOBE forum was climate change.
TIERRAMÉRICA: In the debates on climate change and environmental degradation, water is rarely mentioned. What is your evaluation of the state of freshwater in the world?
JONATHAN BAILLIE: Sixty percent of the world's ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably. Particularly, the use of two ecosystem services -- capture fisheries and fresh water -- is now well beyond levels that can be sustained even at current demands.
There is evidence that up to 25 percent of global freshwater use exceeds long-term accessible supplies and is now met either through engineered water transfers or overdraft of groundwater supplies. Between 15 and 35 percent of irrigation withdrawals exceed supply rates and are therefore unsustainable.
TIERRAMÉRICA: What are the causes behind this unsustainable use of freshwater?
JB: These declines are fundamentally being driven by overpopulation and overconsumption. From about 1960 to the present the world population has more than doubled and the world economy has grown six-fold. Without a coherent development policy, by 2050 there will be an additional 3 billion people on the planet. This will result in unprecedented pressures on the natural world.
TIERRAMÉRICA: How does overconsumption relate to the earth's capacity to regenerate?
JB: The Living Plant Report, from the World Wildlife Fund, estimates that in the late 1980s we started using resources at a rate that exceeded the planet's ability to naturally regenerate. In effect, we were eating into the natural capital of future generations. By 2030 it is estimated that we will be using resources at a rate that could only be sustainably regenerated if we had two planets, and by 2050 this may be as high as almost two and a half planets.
TIERRAMÉRICA: Is agricultural expansion another factor behind the overconsumption of water?
JB: Yes. Agricultural expansion needed to provide for increasing consumption levels and an increasing population is the single greatest cause of ecosystem degradation and loss. To give you one example from Latin America: between 1975 and 2003 in Santa Cruz, the fertile lowlands in eastern Bolivia, a region highly suitable for agriculture. In satellite photos taken in 1975, the region's forested landscape appears as a dense, essentially unbroken expanse of deep green that extends to the Grande (also known as Guapay) River.
By 1986, roads had been built that linked the region to other population centers. As a result, large numbers of people migrated to the area. A large agricultural development effort (the Tierras Bajas project) led to widespread deforestation, as forests were clear-cut and converted to pastures and cropland.
By 2003, satellite photos show that almost the entire region had been converted to agricultural lands.
TIERRAMÉRICA: Marine coastal areas are also at risk of exhaustion, due to aquaculture, among other causes.
JB: Coastal zones are indeed being devastated by aquaculture ponds, timber extraction, and modern dams. There is evidence that up to 35 percent of the mangroves have been lost since the 1980s. Coastal ecosystems are also suffering from diversion of freshwater flows, reduced input of alluvial sediment, high nitrogen loading, and species invasions.
Modern dams have reduced the sediment flux to the world’s coastal zones by 25 to 30 percent, leading to coastal erosion, shrinking river deltas, and damage to coastal fisheries.
TIERRAMÉRICA: But agriculture and aquaculture are vital for the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
JB: That's the development paradox. Under the present path of development, the world's present population is overconsuming basic resources, such as water. At the present rate of use, by 2030 half the world’s population could be living with severe water stress. We cannot afford this.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals cannot be met if we do not secure an adequate supply of freshwater, which can only be done through sustainable management of freshwater resources and freshwater habitats.
TIERRAMÉRICA: How many people are affected by water scarcity?
JB: It is already acute in the Middle East and North Africa. Some 2.8 billion people are living with water scarcity. If no new policies on water management are introduced, by 2030, an additional 1.1 billion will suffer water scarcity. That is, nearly half of the world’s population could be living with severe water stress, including up to 80 percent of the combined populations of Brazil, China, India and Russia.