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Wed 13 Feb 2008 07:11 PM

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Unsustainable water apathy

Experts have predicted that one-third of the world's population will live in areas of severe water shortage by 2025.

It was encouraging to see that water was such a big talking point at the annual World Economic Forum meeting, held in Davos last month. Finally, it seems those who wield the power in the world are slowly waking up to the fact that water scarcity is a growing problem, and a problem that could derail economies in some corners of the earth - especially if the prediction that one-third of the world's population will be living in areas of severe water shortage by 2025 proves to be true.

Most delegates agreed that the need to address the ever decreasing availability of fresh water was now just as urgent as tackling climate change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said water constraints pose a risk to economic growth, human rights, health, safety and national security, declaring: "The challenge of securing safe and plentiful water for all is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today."

Participants concluded that a combination of collaborative approaches, political will, market mechanisms and innovative technology would go some way to solving the problem. But no concrete steps to deal with the issue were put in motion.

‘Revealing' figures on water consumption were trotted out - such as ten times more water is needed to grow meat rather than vegetables and so many litres are needed to produce an irrigated cotton shirt. Yet such statistics and the comment from one delegate that "We need an Al Gore for water", alongside references to "water footprints" only illustrated that there is still along what to go before the subject gets the serious attention it deserves.

Inevitably, given that this was an economic forum, there was discussion over how companies could profit from the situation and a cap-and-trade approach similar to that applied to carbon dioxide was proposed. Others, however, countered that making water a commodity would ultimately end up hurting the poor.

But result of all this was to overcomplicate the issue.

The forum missed the obvious solution that cutting water consumption is the easiest way to prevent the problem from escalating. Changing consumption patterns does not mean no longer wearing cotton clothes and eating less meat, but rather considering whether we all need a swimming pool, a green lawn and luscious flower beds. It means making simple technical changes such as reducing the flush on toilets and changing faucets and showerheads; changes that can significantly reduce water usage.

Public awareness campaigns and improving water management will do much more to ensure future water availability than devising complicated trading mechanisms. It is a simple as turning off a light - cutting energy use cuts emissions. Turning off a tap saves water. For the economists sat in Davos, of course, there is no money to be made through us using less water.

However, initiatives to cut water and energy consumption should not be driven by a desire for greater profits, but rather by a sincere will to secure the future of our planet.

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