Guide Time For Reflection: The Unsustainable Demand for Water and the Consequences for Our Planet

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In the final section, after having acknowledged the importance water holds within religious traditions, the Note considers in some detail the right to water because of the growing importance that the efforts towards its full recognition is assuming in the public debate. After the Third World Water Forum, and in the light of its conclusions, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace will deal with the topic of water in a more developed and detailed document.

Water is an essential element for life. Many people must confront daily the situation of an inadequate supply of safe water and the very serious resulting consequences. The intention of this paper is to present some of the human, social, economic, ethical and religious factors surrounding the issue of water. The Holy See offers these reflections on some of the key issues in the agenda of the 3 rd World Water Forum Kyoto, 16 th rd March , in order to contribute its voice to the call for action to correct the dramatic situation concerning water.

The human being is the centre of the concern expressed in this paper and the focus of its considerations. The management of water and sanitation must address the needs of all, and particularly of persons living in poverty.

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Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well being of over one billion persons and more than twice that number have no adequate sanitation. This all too often is the cause of disease, unnecessary suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. This situation is characterized by countless unacceptable injustices. Water plays a central and critical role in all aspects of life — in the national environment, in our economies, in food security, in production, in politics. Water has indeed a special significance for the great religions.

The inadequacy in the supply and access to water has only recently taken centre stage in global reflection as a serious and threatening phenomenon. Communities and individuals can exist even for substantial periods without many essential goods. The human being, however, can survive only a few days without clean, safe drinking water. Many people living in poverty, particularly in the developing countries, daily face enormous hardship because water supplies are neither sufficient nor safe. Women bear a disproportionate hardship. For water users living in poverty this is rapidly becoming an issue crucial for life and, in the broad sense of the concept, a right to life issue.

Some of the Main Causes of Water Shortage

Water is a major factor in each of the three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental. In this framework, it is understood that water must meet the needs of the present population and those of future generations of all societies. This is not solely in the economic realm but in the sphere of integral human development. Water policy, to be sustainable, must promote the good of every person and of the whole person.

Water has a central place in the practices and beliefs of many religions of the world. This significance manifests itself differently in various religions and beliefs. Yet two particular qualities of water underlie its central place in religions: The principle water difficulty today is not one of absolute scarcity, but rather of distribution 1 and resources. Access and deprivation underlie most water decisions. Hence linkages between water policy and ethics increasingly emerge throughout the world.

Respect for life and the dignity of the human person must be the ultimate guiding norm for all development policy, including environmental policy 2. While never overlooking the need to protect our eco-systems, it is the critical or basic needs of humanity that must be operative in an appropriate prioritisation of water access.

Powerful international interests, public and private, must adapt their agendas to serve human needs rather than dominate them. The human person must be the central point of convergence of all issues pertaining to development, the environment and water. The centrality of the human person must thus be foremost in any consideration of the issues of water.

The first priority of every country and the international community for sustainable water policy should be to provide access to safe water to those who are deprived of such access at present. The earth and all that it contains are for the use of every human being and all peoples. Water is such a common good of humankind. This is the basis for cooperation toward a water policy that gives priority to persons living in poverty and those living in areas endowed with fewer resources 4.

The few, with the means to control, cannot destroy or exhaust this resource, which is destined for the use of all. People must become the "active subjects" of safe water policies. It is their creativity and capacity for innovation that makes people the driving force toward finding new solutions.

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It is the human being who has the ability to perceive the needs of others and satisfy them. Both men and women should be involved and have equal voice in managing water resources and sharing of the benefits that come from sustainable water use. In a globalized world the water concerns of the poor become the concerns of all in a prospective of solidarity. This solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, to the good of all and of each individual.

It presupposes the effort for a more just social order 6 and requires a preferential attention to the situation of the poor. The same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations: The principle of subsidiarity acknowledges that decisions and management responsibilities pertaining to water should take place at the lowest appropriate level. While the water issue is global in scope, it is at the local level where decisive action can best be taken. The engagement of communities at the grassroots level is key to the success of water programs.

While vital to humanity, water has a strong social content. It is highly charged with symbolism and is one of the essentials of life. Among the important social characters of water is its role in human nourishment, health and sanitation as well as peace and conflict avoidance. Agriculture represents a key sector in the economies of developing countries and cannot be sustained without sufficient water. In most of these countries agricultural activities are a major source of livelihood and an essential dimension of local social cohesion and culture.

This activity is carried on by small farmers in rural areas, very often with huge constraints. However, it must be remembered that, in the end, the dominant use of water around the world will continue to be water for food security. People living in rural areas, many times in poverty, can be driven by necessity to exploit beyond sustainable limits the little land they have at their disposal 8. Special training aimed at teaching them how to harmonise the cultivation of land with respect for water and other environmental needs should be encouraged. Where possible, cooperative efforts of water management and use should be encouraged.

Participation suffers when large portions of a population lack skills and knowledge to engage in the issue before them. It should not be overlooked, however, that often those lacking formal education possess traditional forms of knowledge that can be vital and decisive in addressing and solving the question of water. The special knowledge of indigenous people should be esteemed. In the context of rural development, a shift is needed, however, in the emphasis from the traditional irrigation to other means that focus on the needs of the poor and their food insecurity. The challenges are to develop water-saving technologies and to structure incentives to encourage development.

Lands that have been damaged by waterlogging and salinization must be reclaimed through drainage programs. New irrigation development needs to be carried out with proper environmental impact assessment. Policies must be encouraged that develop sustainable irrigation and harness the wider potential of rainfed farming, incorporating water management for gardens and foods from common property resources. Three crucial concerns are present in the relationship between water and health: Management of water quantity can be carried out by revising the allocation of water to different users.

Better maintenance and repair of existing water systems can often significantly increase the water supply. Water conservation methods such as rainwater harvesting, fog condensation and underground dams should be studied for use where appropriate along with stabilization ponds for wastewater and treatment technology for the use of wastewater for irrigation.

Water shortages can be substantially overcome through further development and use of treated urban wastewater for use in agriculture. This has considerable potential and if carefully managed carries only very limited risks and associated difficulties. The problem of maintaining and improving water quality is especially acute in the more urbanized areas, predominantly in developing countries. This is most often hampered by a failure to enforce pollution controls at the main point source and the inadequacy of sanitation systems and of garbage collection and disposal.

Most of the diseases that contaminate water come from animal or human waste and are communicable. These diseases have health effects that are heavily concentrated in the developing world, and within that context particularly among poor urban populations. Wastewater is often the medium through which these can affect humans. Whether it relates to quantity, quality or disease, the trend away from centralized government agencies and towards empowering local governments and local communities to manage water supplies must be emphasised.

This necessitates building community capacities, especially in the area of personnel, and the allocation of resources to the local level. Growing pressure due to increasing demand for water can be a source of conflict. When water is scarce, competition for limited supplies has lead nations to see water as a matter of national or regional security. History provides ample evidence of competition and disputes over shared fresh water resources.

Identifying potential trouble areas does little good if there are no effective and recognized mechanisms for mitigating tensions. Existing international water law may be unable to handle the strains of ongoing and future problems. But some mechanisms for reducing the risks of such conflicts do in fact exist. These need renewed international support and should be applied more effectively and at an earlier stage of potential conflicts.

At the international level, conflicts tend to focus on shared river basins and transboundary waters, especially when combined with circumstances of low water availability. Tensions arise with increasing frequency over projects to dam or divert water by countries in a powerful position upstream from their neighbouring countries. Water has always been acknowledged for its role in production and thus in the economy.

However, in recent years increased emphasis has been given to the economic value of water. The economics of water is one of the most important aspects of water resource management that needs to be balanced with cultural and social concerns. The concept of treating water as an economic good is valid but the practice of doing so can be challenging. The use of water for industry and energy are of great importance in terms of the amounts of water used, the cost of investments to provide the water and the economic significance of the resultant production.

Every water policy must address the underlying economic issues. The aim of treating water as an economic good should be to accord water its proper economic value and enable the water economy of the country to be integrated with the broader national economy. Policies relating to the economics of water should ensure optimum efficiency and the most beneficial use while meeting the required objects of social development and environmental sustainability.

There are increasing instances, however, of the commercialisation of water and water services. The most delicate and sensitive point in the consideration of water as an economic good is to ensure that a balance is maintained between ensuring that water for basic human needs is available to the poor and that, where it is used for production or other beneficial use, it is properly and appropriately valued. Hydroelectric power is an important source of clean energy. It provides approximately twenty percent of total electricity production worldwide and brings notable economic and environmental benefits.

For poor mountainous regions it offers one of the few avenues for economic growth via electricity exports. However, too often in the past such projects have been accompanied by devastating environmental costs. Policy discussion in this area has been dominated by big dams to the neglect of issues such as small-scale hydropower and water use for cooling in thermal power plants.

Water and sustainable development

While most of this water re-enters the water system, the significant change in temperature and in some cases quality, has serious environmental and resource implications. Dams still remain today one the most contentious development issues for the water sector. Water by its very nature cannot be treated as a mere commodity among other commodities. Catholic social thought has always stressed that the defence and preservation of certain common goods, such as the natural and human environments, cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces, since they touch on fundamental human needs which escape market logic cf.

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Centesimus Annus , Water has traditionally been a State responsibility in most countries and viewed as a public good. Governments worldwide, for diverse political and social considerations, may indeed often provide large subsidies to insulate water users from the true cost of water provision. At the same time, in the interest of achieving more efficient sustainable water services, private sector involvement in water management is growing.

It has however proved to be extremely difficult to establish the right balance of public-private partnerships and serious errors have been committed. At times individual enterprises attained almost monopoly powers over public goods. Today, more than 1. Water can pose a serious challenge to sustainable development but managed efficiently and equitably, water can play a key enabling role in strengthening the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems in the light of rapid and unpredictable changes. The Brundtland Commission focused on three pillars of human well being: The basic concept endorses putting in place strong measures to spur economic and social development, particularly for people in developing countries, while ensuring that environmental integrity is sustained for future generations.

The Millennium Development Goals MDGs , agreed in , aim to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation between and A total of million people still do not have access to an improved drinking water source and existing indicators do not address the safety and reliability of water supplies. To reach the requirements of the right to access to safe drinking water requires real improvements for several billions of people.

The MDG target for sanitation is an even more pressing challenge, with 2. At current rates of progress, the sanitation target will be missed by over half a billion people.

What is Water Shortage?

These global aggregates also mask large disparities between nations and regions, rich and poor, between rural and urban populations, as well as between disadvantaged groups and the general population. There is currently no global target to improve hygiene , despite this being one of the single most cost-effective public health interventions.

One of its main outcomes was an agreement to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals, which build on the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post development agenda. The Zaragoza Conference focused on the tools for implementation stated in the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro from 20 to 22 June , entitled "The future we want" , which includes finance, technology and capacity building, adding the institutional and policy dimensions.

As the time limit for the MDGs draws to a close in , the global community is taking stock of how it can move towards a sustainable future. The MDG framework did not address the full water and development agenda, nor fully recognize its synergies with other areas and concerns. Subsequently, member states have agreed that human rights, equality and sustainability should form the core of the development agenda and be recognized as critical for true development.

The water goal and targets directly address the development aims of societies, promote human dignity and ensure achievements are sustainable over the long term leading to the following development outcomes, amongst others:. Rainfed agriculture is the predominant agricultural production system around the world, and its current productivity is, on average, little more than half the potential obtainable under optimal agricultural management. More-developed countries have a much larger proportion of freshwater withdrawals for industry than less-developed countries, where agriculture dominates.

Balancing the requirements of sustainability against the conventional view of industrial mass production creates a number of conundrums for industry. One of the biggest is globalization and how to spread the benefits of industrialization worldwide and without unsustainable impacts on water and other natural resources.

And yet, worldwide, an estimated million people remain without access to an improved source of water and 2. More than half the world already lives in urban areas and by , it is expected that more than two-thirds of the global population of 9 billion will be living in cities. Furthermore, most of this growth will happen in developing countries, which have limited capacity to deal with this rapid change, and the growth will also lead to increase in the number of people living in slums, which often have very poor living conditions, including inadequate water and sanitation facilities.

Therefore, the development of water resources for economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability will be closely linked with the sustainable development of cities. Perhaps the most important challenge to sustainable development to have arisen in the last decades is the unfolding global ecological crisis that is becoming a barrier to further human development. From an ecological perspective, the sustainable development efforts have not been successful. Global environmental degradation has reached a critical level with major ecosystems approaching thresholds that could trigger massive collapse.

July The present prototype global sustainable development report is the result of a collaborative effort of more than two thousand scientists and 50 staff from 20 UN entities from all world regions.

Effects and Severe Consequences of Water Shortages