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Developing Countries, Issues in

Developing Countries, Issues in

Water resource issues and problems in the world's developing countries, or lesser developed countries, present special management challenges. These issues and problems include inadequate drinking-water supply and sanitation facilities, water pollution, floods, the siltation of river systems, and the management of rivers and large dams. These problems are more severe and widespread in the developing countries than in the world's wealthier, industrialized ones. Barriers to addressing water problems in developing nations include poverty, illiteracy, rapid population growth, and ineffective institutions and policies for developing, distributing, pricing, and conserving water resources.

The complex patterns of these problems in the developing countries are shaped by differences in wealth, environment, and political systems. For example, extreme poverty in much of sub-Saharan Africa limits access to quality water services. Bangladesh's location at the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers makes it one of the world's most flood-prone nations. The political system of apartheid in South Africa for years limited the access of rural blacks to adequate water resources. Such differences and patterns must be considered when evaluating water resource problems in the developing nations.

Inadequate Supply and Sanitation

The United Nations designated the 1980s as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. Despite this commitment and the resources devoted to improving water services, inadequate drinking-water supplies and sanitation facilities constitute a key water resource problem in the developing countries. Nearly 1 billion of the world's people do not have an "adequate" supply of water, and roughly 2 billion do not have access to "adequate" sanitation facilities (with "adequate" defined as a single water tap shared among hundreds of people). Most of these people are in the world's developing nations.

The lack of adequate water services is the cause of much disease and illness in the developing nations. For example, the World Health Organization of the United Nations estimates that 900 million people each year suffer from diarrheal illnesses or other diseases spread by contaminated water, such as typhoid and cholera. According to the World Bank, the use of polluted water for human consumption is the principal cause of health problems that kill more than 2 million people each yearmost of them childrenand make another billion sick.

The shortage of drinking-water facilities means that open bodies of water are often used as drinking-water sources. Standing, open water bodies make attractive breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which may transmit malaria. Standing water also may host snails, which may carry schistosomiasis, a tropical disease that affects the urinary and intestinal systems. Poor public health conditions reduce human productivity and result in economic losses that poor countries can ill afford.

One barrier to improving water services in the developing nations is the high cost of upgrading and constructing infrastructure . Increased demand and intensive use of water (as caused by population increases) often create the need for additional water treatment because water in new source areas tends to be of lower quality; in addition, the original supplies have diminished or their quality has been degraded. In Mexico City, for example, water is pumped over an elevation of 1,000 meters (about 3,280 feet) into the Mexico Valley. This is 55 percent higher than the former source, the Mexico Valley aquifer . A newly designed water supply project for the city, to be pumped over an elevation of 2,000 meters (about 6,562 feet), is expected to be even more costly.

Water Pollution

Water pollution in the developing nations is caused by animal and human waste, overapplication of fertilizers, industrial chemicals, urban runoff, and a general lack of pollution prevention laws and their enforcement. Access to adequate wastewater treatment facilities in the developing countries is very limited. For example, only 209 of India's 3,119 towns and citiesless than one in tenhave even partial sewage systems and treatment facilities. As a result, waterbodies in the developing nations are often used as open sewers for human waste products and garbage.*

An example of this degradation is in Bangkok, Thailand, a city crossed by thousands of canals and referred to as "The Venice of the East." Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is a measure of water quality. Pristine streams exhibit high levels of BOD, and low BOD levels indicate degraded water quality. The water in Bangkok's canals is so polluted that levels of BOD in Bangkok's canals are equivalent to BOD levels in sewage.*


Floods convey both dangers and benefits to people in the developing nations. Floods account for about 40 percent of all deaths caused by natural disasters, most of which are in the developing nations. For example, 3.7 million people were killed in a 1931 flood on China's Yangtze River. In 2000, four of the world's five largest natural disasters were floods.

Floods also convey environmental and social benefits. Floods carry sediments and nutrients downstream and into floodplains. This natural process is important to river ecology and for agricultural production. Many farmers in the developing nations depend on recession agriculture, a practice in which crops are planted in soils saturated by receding floodwaters.

Floods provide reproductive cues to fishes and allow them to swim into floodplains and feast on submerged floodplain vegetation. (Fish are a critical source of animal protein for many people in the lesser developed countries.) Programs for flood management should consider and seek to balance these hazardous and beneficial aspects of floods.


Irrigated agriculture is important in the developing nations, as it constitutes about 80 percent of water uses. Many varieties of irrigated agriculture are practiced in the developing nations, ranging from gravity irrigation canal systems to small tanks and tube wells. Some of these systems are highly efficient, whereas others are affected by problems such as leaky delivery systems, salinization, fouled water supplies (including groundwater, an important source of irrigation), and inflexible delivery schedules.


Throughout the developing countries, deforestation is being caused by a combination of overpopulation, inappropriate land use practices, and inadequate environmental regulations and enforcement. Soil erosion is a natural process, but deforestation and other human activities have resulted in a fivefold increase in the average levels of sediment carried in the world's rivers. Excess sediment in rivers can damage aquatic ecosystems and fisheries, affecting the people who directly depend on them. For example, deforestation in the watershed surrounding Cambodia's Great Lakethe nation's most important fisheryis causing parts of the lake to fill in and is threatening the fishery's long-term viability.


The developing nations have constructed thousands of large dams to reduce flood damages, to generate hydroelectricity , and to increase and stabilize water supplies. These dams have provided significant benefits to the developing countries but have also caused complex physical, biological, and societal changes.

The creation of a reservoir submerges a river's bottomlands. These floodplains have rich soils, and their high productivity often supports large human populations. Reservoirs thus often require the resettlement of large numbers of people. For example, China is building the Three Gorges Dam, scheduled for completion in 2009; the reservoir behind the dam will require the resettlement of more than one million people. As a result of the social and environmental changes they have caused, large dams have also been a source of controversysometimes violentin the developing nations.

Aspects of Problem-Solving

In order to better understand these effects and help resolve some of the controversies, in 1997 the World Bank appointed the World Commission on Dams to review the record of dam construction and management and the social, economic, and environmental impacts. The commission released its report in 2000. One of its conclusions was that although dams clearly have made many significant contributions, unacceptable costs have too often been borne to secure those benefits, especially in the form of environmental impacts and by people who lived downstream.

Many barriers to better water management in the developing countries are rooted in economic, institutional, and policy issues. One of these economic problems is overpriced drinking water. For example, people in Portau-Prince, Haiti, spend 20 percent of their income on water; in Nigeria, the figure is roughly 18 percent. Ironically, problems may also arise if water is priced too low. If fees are set too low, the costs of providing the services are not recaptured; thus, the finances necessary to continue providing services are inadequate, which sets off a cycle of declining quality of services and customers unwilling to pay for them.

Governments in the developing nations, as well as donor nations and organizations, should strengthen efforts to provide adequate water services for their citizens. Although drinking-water and sanitation facilities lack the glamour of larger, more visible projects, the public health problems caused by the lack of these facilities stifle economic and social progress. Additional efforts toward stabilizing population growth rates would reduce demands on limited water and environmental resources. Water planning programs and policies should be better integrated than in the past; for example, water projects must consider ecological and human factors along with hydrologic and engineering principles. While these problems can be lessened with the assistance of donor nations, approaches should be tailored to local and regional settings through cooperation between external experts and local scientists and people (such information exchanges also often prove to be mutually beneficial). While the key to addressing these issues ultimately lies within the developing nations themselves, the means for merging local, indigenous knowledge with experiences from the developed nations should be explored.

see also Agriculture and Water; Conflict and Water; Dams; Drinking Water and Society; Drought Management; Economic Development; Fisheries, Fresh-Water; Floodplain Management; Food Security; Human Health and Water; Irrigation Management; Population and Water Resources; Pricing, Water; Supply Development; Survival Needs; Sustainable Development.

Jeffrey W. Jacobs


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Internet Resources

Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. The Report of theWorld Commission on Dams, 2000. The World Commission on Dams. <>.

* See "Nutrients in Lakes and Streams" for a photograph of the prolific water-weed growth in a Bangkok waterway.

* See the "Pollution of Streams by Garbage and Trash" for a photograph of household garbage and rubbish being dumped into a creek.

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