Water: Two Billion People Are Dying for It

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Water: Two Billion People Are Dying for It


By: Amit Dave

Date: June 1, 2003

Source: © Reuters/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Amit Dave is a photographer for Reuters, a worldwide news agency. This photo is part of the Corbis Corporation collection, whose worldwide archive contains over seventy million images.


Areas of Pakistan and India suffered a protracted drought in the early 2000s. This image shows inhabitants of the village of Natwargadh in the state of Gujarat, western India, gathered around a large communal well on June 1, 2003. Temperatures rose as high as 111° F as people were forced to walk long distances—sometimes miles—to get drinking water.

The drought broke in July 2003, about a month after this picture was taken, when massive monsoon season rains swept the region. Suddenly floods and polluted water supplies were the problem rather than insufficient water; about 300 people drowned in India and Bangladesh, 300,000 were made homeless, and, when sewage mixed with rain water, 50,000 were sickened and 300 died in India's Assam province.



See primary source image.


Fresh water is essential for survival and basic to human society: It is needed for crops, sanitation, drinking, cooking, washing, and industry. Water covers about 70 percent of the world's surface in the form of oceans, rivers, lakes, and ice caps, but only about 2.5 percent is fresh, and two-thirds of that amount is frozen in glaciers and ice caps. As much as twenty percent of the world's fresh liquid water is in the Amazon River basin. About seventy percent of human fresh water use goes to agriculture, both livestock and irrigation.

As population increases worldwide, fresh water supplies are increasingly stressed. The plight of the villagers in this photograph typifies that of many people where water is running short, particularly the Middle East, north Africa, and large parts of India and China. The United Nations has declared a crisis in global fresh water supplies and predicts that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population could experience "stress conditions" of water scarcity, while 1.8 billion people could face severe water scarcity. Three billion had no access to sanitation (which requires water) in 2000, according to a UN study: One billion had no access to safe drinking water. About 5,000 children a day die worldwide from preventable waterborne diseases.

As water becomes scarce, food supplies are endangered. Farmers can reduce water waste with more precise sprinklers and drip irrigation systems, which deliver water directly to crop roots rather than saturating whole areas of land. However, irrigation can have intrinsic long-term problems as well. When water is delivered to a land area and then evaporated from it, whatever minerals were dissolved in it—including salt—stay in the soil. If insufficient rain fails to dissolve the salt and wash it away, it accumulates, eventually rendering the soil unfit for crops.

Global climate change is likely to worsen the situation. In 2006, scientists at the Africa Earth Observatory Network released a study noting that the parts of the world already shortest on water are most likely to see a reduction in rainfall. They also found that seemingly small rainfall reductions can have a disproportionate effect on surface water supplies: In regions of Africa receiving 500 millimeters of rain annually, a ten percent reduction in precipitation would cut surface water in half. Water refugees and even water wars—military struggles over water supplies—may occur as water becomes scarce. Indeed, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict may already be partly a water war: Aquifers in the West Bank are currently processed through Israel's water system and distributed throughout the region. Any reduction in (or charge for) water from the West Bank might present a major crisis.

In 2003 the General Assembly declared 2005–2015 the "Water for Life" decade. During this time, the UN hopes "to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water … and to stop unsustainable exploitation of water resources." The basic problem, according to the UN, is not one of absolute water shortage, but of mismanaging what is available. Through improved management, much suffering can be alleviated, even as the planet's population continues to grow.


Web sites

BBC News. "World's Drinking Water Running Out." Dec. 15, 1999. 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/566809.stm〉 (accessed April 12, 2006).

BBC News. "Food at Risk as Water Drips Away." July 17, 1999. 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/396270.stm〉 (accessed April 12, 2006).

United Nations-Water. ".International Decade for Action: Water for Life, 2005–2015'. 〈http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/index.html gt; (accessed April 12, 2006).

Reuters Alertnet. "Climate Change to Create African [Water Refugees]—Scientists." (March 22, 2006) 〈http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/114303555233〉 (accessed April 12, 2006).