The new World Water Development Report (WWDR4) warns of the impact of changing dietary habits.

The 2012 United Nations report on freshwater resources, the World Water Development Report (WWDR4) says around four billion people lack access to safe water. It says the figure could get worse as the global population is likely to reach 9.1 billion in 2050, and 68 % of these people would live in cities.

The report – Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk – provides a comprehensive review of the world’s freshwater resources and is the fourth in the three-yearly series. The content comes from the coordinated efforts of 26 UN agencies that make up UN-Water, working with governments, international organizations, NGOs and other stakeholders. The report seeks to demonstrate, among other messages, that water underpins all aspects of development, and that a coordinated approach to managing and allocating water is critical. Water, it says, needs to be an intrinsic element in decision-making across the whole development spectrum.

The report points out that water availability for agriculture is set to worsen, leading to increased competition for water resources, and that the shift in diet that has accompanied economic growth – from predominantly starch-based diets to meat and dairy – also has a major impact as the latter require much more water to produce. Production of 1kg of rice, for example, requires approx 3,500 litres of water whereas 1kg of beef requires 15,000 litres.

European and North American populations consume a considerable amount of virtual water embedded in imported food and other products, the Ghanaian Chronicle reported the WWDR4 as saying.  Each person in North America and Europe (excluding former Soviet Union countries) consumes at least 3,000 litres per day of virtual water in imported food, compared to 1,400 litres per day in Asia, and 1,100 litres per day in Africa. Various estimates suggest that approximately 3.5 earth-sized planets would be needed to sustain a global population to achieve the current lifestyle of the average European or North American, the Chronicle said.

Some of the specific implications for Africa are:

  • India is growing maize, sugar cane, lentils and rice in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique to feed its domestic market.
  • European firms are seeking 3.9m hectares of African land to meet their 10% biofuel target by 2015.
  • The amount of water required for biofuel plantations could be particularly devastating to regions such as West Africa, where water is already scarce, given that one litre of ethanol from sugarcane requires 18.4 litres of water and 1.52 square metres of land.

Standpipes are Still the Norm in Africa

Water is a huge priority for Africa. Over one billion people in developing countries still have no access to safe water ‑ and 42 % of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

At a meeting of ministers from Africa and representatives of United Nations agencies, development banks, public water operators, non-profit groups and trade unions from around the world to celebrate World Water Day on March 22nd in Cape Town, it was observed that the number of people living in cities in Africa with no access to tap water at home or in the immediate surroundings increased from 137m to 195m between 2000 and 2008.

In most SSA countries, communities rely on communal standpipes, vendors, open waterways, rain water collection and wells, and over 80 % of the lowest income groups fetch their water.

Unfortunately, this is the case despite enormous wealth and increasing numbers of educated people in policy-making positions in Africa, pointing to a possibility that the situation is accepted as normal, says Professor Andrew Muwonge writing in The Southern Times

Information from UN Habitat, city level data of 43 African cities showed that in fact 83% of the population lacked toilets that were connected to sewers, and only one to seven percent of the African city’s populations are connected to the city sewer, with the result that many city residents defecate along beaches, watercourses and gutters or use latrines that empty in wetlands and even water wells.

54 African water and energy ministers, 700 experts and a number of scientists in water, sustainable development, energy, environment and electricity attended an African water ministers’ conference in Cairo on May 14th-15th. On the agenda was water, drainage, environment, infrastructure of water resources, the use of water in generating power and improving irrigation, Egypt’s state information service said.

Vast Reservoir of Groundwater?

A team of scientists from the British Geological Survey and University College London (UCL) writing in the Journal, Environmental Research Letters, have argued that Africa sits on a vast reservoir of underground aquifer and have produced a detailed map of this hidden resource.

A BBC news, Science and Environment report said the scientists are warning caution about the best way of accessing the groundwater and suggest that widespread drilling of large boreholes might not work and could rapidly deplete the resource, given poor rainfall. They suggest that slower means of extraction would be more effective.

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