Thoughts on World Water Day

In 1992, a UN conference recommended marking a day for the international observance of water needs, and the UN General Assembly responded by designating 22 March 1993 as the first World Water Day. The day has been celebrated every year since then, and each year UN-Water, the organisation that coordinates UN work on water and sanitation, choses a theme to reflect how important water is in every aspect of life.

Previous themes have included “Water is Life”, “Water and Food”, “Water and Equality”, “Water and Industry”, “Water and Art” and “Water and Poverty”. This year’s theme is “Water and Jobs: Better Water for Better Jobs.”

Over the years, UN-Water has produced fact sheets to inform the public about various aspects of water. There are 276 transboundary rivers in the world, for example, and 148 countries have territory in one or more transboundary river basins. Russia is the country that has the most transboundary rivers running through it (30), followed by the US and Chile (19 each), Argentina and China (18 each), Canada (15), Guinea (14), Guatemala (13) and France (10). The same fact sheet says that almost 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007.

According to UN-Water’s publication “Water for Food”, the world’s population will rise from the current seven billion people to nine billion by 2050 and this will necessitate a 60 per cent increase in food production. However, there will only be a 19 per cent increase in the rate of water used for agriculture due to the effects of global warming and climate change. In other words, it will be necessary to produce more food from less water.

Agriculture continues to consume most of the world’s fresh water at an overall global ratio of 70 per cent. This ratio climbs to as high as 93 per cent in developing countries and Africa (in Egypt it is 85 per cent). Meanwhile, 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources is consumed domestically and 20 per cent is consumed in industry. While the average person drinks two to four litres of water a day, he or she eats between 2,000 and 5,000 litres of “virtual water embedded in food” a year because of the huge quantities of water needed to grow the food we eat.

More ominously, in poor and developing nations, which have the greatest need for clean and fresh water, 80 per cent of sewerage is discharged untreated into water bodies, causing dangerous pollution that increases the rates of water-borne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, gastroenteritis and dysentery, as well as the rates of diseases transmitted by mosquitos and flies that thrive in swamps and wastewater areas.

In 2013, UN-Water reported that women do the bulk of the work of gathering water and wood for families and up to 90 per cent in Africa. In some African countries, such as Gambia, women have to walk as far as 30 kilometres and spend up to six hours a day carrying heavy water carriers.

Meanwhile, another fact sheet warns us of the rise of water scarcity in tandem with the increase of fresh water losses. By 2050, this will increase by 50 per cent in developing countries as opposed to only 18 per cent in developed countries due to the huge rates of population growth in the former. As a result, by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with “absolute water scarcity” and “two-thirds of the world’s population could be under stress conditions”.

On climate change and its impact on fresh water availability, UN-Water reports that between 1991 and 2000 about 665,000 people worldwide died in 2,557 natural disasters, of which 90 per cent were water-related events such as severe droughts, floods and violent storms such as cyclones and hurricanes. In the shorter period of 2000 to 2006, another 2,163 people died due to similar water-related disasters that also harmed a billion and a half people and caused $422 billion of damage.

In addition, according to the UN report as a result of climate change the temperature of the earth is expected to rise two to four degrees centigrade during this century and adaption to climate change will cost the world between $70 billion and $100 billion between 2020 and 2050 alone.

WATER IN THE ARAB WORLD: In the Arab region, situated in the driest region in the world, with climates ranging from hyper-arid to arid and very few in the semi-humid zone, water resources account for less than one per cent of the world’s total water resources, while the region’s 370 million people account for about five per cent of the world’s population.

Moreover, the Arab region has the highest rate of population growth in the world at between 1.7 and 2.3 per cent, or double the global rate of population growth (1.1 per cent). In some Arab countries, the rate is as high as 3.5 per cent.

All Arab countries depend for their water on shared surface basins or subterranean aquifers, which do not offer water security and require constant vigilance with regard to what is happening in and around them. This applies to such surface basins as the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, as well as the Orontes, the Jordan, the Yarmuk, the Tehama and the Juba, all of which are transboundary rivers originating in non-Arab countries.

It also applies to such aquifer systems as the Nubian sand basin between Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad, the Great North Sahara basin between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, the subterranean aquifers in the Arabian Peninsula shared by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen and Iraq, and the limestone aquifers that stretch across Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Most Arab countries fall below the water-scarcity threshold, defined as less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per capita a year. Scientists predict that by the end of the next two decades, all the Arab countries will fall below the water scarcity line, while some will plunge below the acute water scarcity line of 500 cubic metres per capita per year.

The agricultural sector is the greatest water consumer in the Arab region at around 82 per cent of total available water resources. While the rates of water consumption by industry and municipal sectors (domestic consumption, schools and universities, hospitals, government buildings, public parks, etc) continues to grow due to urban expansion projections, Arab countries will need much more water for the agricultural sector to counter potential threats due to the food deficiency gap in the Arab world, which currently imports more than 50 per cent of its food from abroad.

It is also important to clarify the nature of the climate change that is happening both globally and regionally. While natural and human forces are involved, according to the International Commission on Climate Change, the rising temperatures of the earth during the 20th century, the phenomenon known as “global warming,” appear to be anthropogenic, which is to say that they are caused by humans through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, causing increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A 2009 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report on climate change and arid lands offers another definition for climate change: a change in the state of the climate that can be identified in terms of changes in its average properties and/or fluctuation that lasts for extended periods, perhaps decades or more. The report attributes climate change to a combination of intrinsic natural processes and to extrinsic or anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere and in land uses.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” In other words, this definition draws a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities that alter the composition of the atmosphere and climate fluctuations attributable to natural causes.

Accordingly, it is important to differentiate between climate change attributable to human causes (and sometimes natural causes such as volcanic eruptions, violent storms and increased solar activity) and “climate vulnerabilities” which are natural fluctuations in the nature of seasons from one year to the next (such as a hot summer followed by a relatively mild one, or a mild winter followed by a bitterly cold one) as such fluctuations are normal and have nothing to do with human activity.

Many scientists maintain that climate change is a reality and that the world has already begun to feel its effects.

RESPONSIBILITIES FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: The US causes 22.1 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions thought to be responsible for the build-up of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere that are responsible for climate change.

China comes next at 21.2 per cent, followed by India (5.9 per cent) and Russia (5.8 per cent), and then Japan, Germany, Canada, the UK, South Korea and Iran. These are the world’s top ten greenhouse gas producers, causing 67 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the US and China alone cause more than 43 per cent of all emissions. Just five countries — the US, China, Russia, India and Japan — are responsible for 55 per cent of world carbon emissions, and these countries simultaneously control 50 per cent of global GDP. Their combined populations make up 46 per cent of the total population of the world.

Yet, it should be noted that the US, which accounts for 22.2 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, contains only about five per cent of the world’s population (300 million), while China, which causes about 21 per cent of emissions, contains around 20 per cent of the world’s population. India, which contributes 5.9 per cent, is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population. In other words, India produces around a single ton of greenhouse Most Arab countries fall below the water-scarcity threshold, defined as less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per capita a year. Scientists predict that by the end of the next two decades, all the Arab countries will fall below the water scarcity line, while some will plunge below the acute water scarcity line of 500 cubic metres per capita per year.

gas for every individual Indian, China produces five tons per capita and the US produces 19 tons of emissions for every American.

The most important of the greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide (CO2). Accounting for 61 per cent of all greenhouse gases, CO2 is generated by the consumption of the fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) used to generate electricity, to power transportation vehicles and systems, and to heat and cool public and private buildings.

CO2 is followed by methane, which makes up 14.3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Its chief sources are rice fields, swamp lands, burning savannah grasses, natural pasturages, stagnant waters and shifts in land uses from forests and pasturage to field agriculture. Thirdly comes nitrous oxide at 7.9 per cent, which derives from the decomposition and volatilisation of nitrogen fertilisers, organic substances, chemical factories and some military industries and explosives.

Fluorine and its derivatives hydrogen fluoride and carbon fluoride contribute 1.1 per cent of greenhouse emissions and are mostly caused by cooling and heating systems. Finally, deforestation and the decomposition of dead animals contribute about 17.3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions mostly in the form of CO2.

The major greenhouse gases that exist in the atmosphere are water vapour (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and ozone (O3). In addition, there are a number of anthropogenic greenhouse gases such as halocarbons and other materials containing chlorine and bromine, which are also covered in the Montreal Protocol on Climate Change, in addition to carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4). The 1992 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change adds sulphur hexafluoride and such compounds as hydrofluorocarbon and fluoride-saturated hydrocarbons.

Obviously, food production will be severely affected by climate change and especially by the increased occurrences of drought, rising temperatures, salinisation of the soil due to solution and deterioration, and desertification. Scientists predict that the production levels of wheat and corn in particular will be affected the Arab region at a rate of a 20 per cent reduction in wheat and a 47 per cent reduction in corn and a general shortage in the production of grains and vegetables of up to 20 per cent. Rice production is expected to plunge by 30 per cent during the same period.


The writer is a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

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