A World of Thirst
Poor sanitation. Pollution. Wasteful irrigation. The planet's freshwater supply is terribly managed
The rush from farms to cities in developing countries is increasing the stress on water sources and taxing inadequate infrastructure. With more than 50 percent of the world's population now in urban areas, cities are depleting groundwater sources and dumping industrial pollution and waste into rivers, destroying them as sources of clean water. "It's a failure of governments," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, "to either set priorities ... or to meet basic needs."
In teeming New Delhi, middle-class denizens tote the latest cellphones, but their home faucets, at best, work a few hours a day. A third of the city's water is lost in cracked, aging pipes. The poor in India's expanding slums don't have even that much; they must wait for water to arrive in trucks, which costs them more than piped water. In cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, slum dwellers pay five to 10 times more for water than the wealthy.
Untreated. Sanitation is the bigger mess, so to speak, because of uncontrolled urban growth. The Yamuna River, once a lifeline to New Delhi, is now an open sewerused by those without toilets. And about half of the waste that goes through the city's sewage system is untreated before being dumped into the river. Open defecation is standard practice in much of the developing world. A lack of sanitation and clean water has helped make diarrhea the world's No. 2 killer of children. "They have water to drink. That's not the problem," says Andrew Hudson, director of water governance for the United Nations Development Program. "They don't have safe water to drink."
Studies have shown that providing clean water and sanitation brings tremendous benefits. Health costs go down. People live longer, stay healthier, and become more productive. But "financiers ... want to invest in energy, telecoms, highways, high-speed trains, you name it," says Harvard's Rogers. "The problem is [water] yields social benefits, so no one individual can afford to do it." Industrialization of the developing world is a primary driver of water stress. Factories provide jobs, which attract people. They also use a lot of water. In China, industrialization will require a fivefold increase in water use by 2030.
The countryside poses its own problems. The developing world has followed America's lead in relying heavily on groundwater irrigation to expand its farm economy. Agriculture is the world's top user of wateras high as 80 percent in some countriesand it's also perhaps the most inefficient. In Chennai, India, drinking water must be trucked in, but outside city limits, farmers use gallon after gallon to irrigate rice, an extremely water-intensive grain.
Solving these problems requires money, but aid is down to a trickle. In the late 1990s, public spending on water and sanitation was 2 percent of the GDP in most countries. Today it's less than 1 percent as countries devote more resources to education, roads, and other priorities. Foreign assistance, meanwhile, has stagnated at about $15 billion a year, though the World Bank is calling for twice that amount.