Water & Sanitation

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Water levels down in world’s biggest rivers
DAKAR, 22 April 2009 (IRIN) – “Water levels have declined over the past 50 years in some of the world’s largest rivers – including those serving large populations in China, West Africa and India – according to the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). NCAR scientists link the decline to lower rainfall, more evaporation and higher water use. In the study of 925 rivers, about three-quarter’s of the world’s streams, those where water levels are falling, outnumbered those with rising levels by 2.5 to one. Water flows increased in sparsely populated areas near the Arctic Ocean, where snow and ice are rapidly melting…”


Between 70 and 75 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water – primarily salt water. Only 2.53 percent of the world’s water is useable freshwater which can be found in groundwater aquifers, rivers and freshwater lakes. Two-thirds of this freshwater is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover with some further reduced by pollution – 2 million tonnes of waste per day is estimated to be dumped as a result of chemicals, industrial, human and agricultural wastes (fertilizers, pesticides and pesticide residues). In developing countries, more than 90% of sewage and 70% of industrial wastewater is dumped, untreated, into surface water. Although water is a renewable resource – the extent to which the increasing demands made on the resource can be met is finite.

The Water ‘Crisis’

“Water is the biggest crisis facing India in terms of spread and severity, affecting one in every three persons. Even in Chennai, Bangalore, Shimla and Delhi, water is being rationed and India’s food security is under threat. With the lives and livelihoods of millions at risk, urban India is screaming for water. For instance, water is rationed twice a week in Bangalore, and for 30 minutes a day in Bhopal; 250 tankers make 2,250 trips to quench Chennai’s thirst. Mumbai routinely lives through water cuts from January to June, when some areas get water once in three days in Hyderabad.”


Water is a necessary commodity for survival and a fundamental human right, yet many parts of the world today are experiencing a ‘water crisis’ as a result of the growing world demand on water. According to the UN, the word ‘crisis’ is sometimes overused in development terms – however, when it refers to water, the UN are clear that the “world faces a crisis that, left unchecked, will derail progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and hold back human development.”

Some argue that the global supply of water is running out. Others, such as the UN dispute this view, saying that “competition, environmental stress and unpredictability of access to water as a productive resource are powerful drivers of water insecurity for a large proportion of the global population.” In their 2006 Human Development Report: “Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis,” the UNDP state that there is a sufficient global supply of water to meet the needs of the people on the planet. However, they argue that like wealth, the scarcity is due to the unequal distribution of the commodity ‘between and within’ countries – it is the reality of poverty, inequality, unequal power relations and flawed water management policies. The reality translates into millions of the world’s most vulnerable people living in areas that are subject to increasing “water stress.” With this challenge, the report continues, 2 dangers emerge:

  1. the competition for water will intensify and those with the weakest rights such as small farmers and women will experience their entitlements to water being replaced by rich and more powerful constituencies
  2. cross-border tensions will heighten over access to water.