According to the 2006 development report of the UN, the minimum threshold per person for a day is about 20 litters. yet about 1.1 billion people, basically from the developing world use only 5 liters per person a day “ an amount used to flush toilets in rich countries” to borrow a phrase from that report, while people in Europe use more than 200 liters and in the United states 400 liters daily.
Well the cumulative truth is a little unpleasant. Whenever a person is showering in the United States or flushing a toilet in Europe s/he is actually using more water than is available, both in terms of quantity and sanitation to millions of people residing in the poorer parts of the world.
There is nothing justifiable about it either as a policy practice or as a personal behavior and nothing can be done in the short term to change it except to remind the public again and again to use water “wisely”. My pessimism is based neither on the indifference of people to advice or authorities nor on the potential insurmountably of the mandate of managing drying water sources, but on the fact that it is a difficult task to engage an entire society in any part of the globe in the scientific dialogue about the possible water shortage in the near future in many corners of the world and the global water problems that might define some of our globe’s battle lines in the 21st century, without losing their serious attention.
The danger of water crisis has so far been grasped only by few geologists, concerned environmentalists and doomsdayers. Water as a “fugitive resource” traversing borders through rivers lakes, and aquifers has a potential for creating cross-border tensions in water-stressed regions. And the inevitable national competition that might ensue because of a real or perceived water-dryout will intensify the already existing economic and geo-political tensions around the globe. Apart from the dozen or more ecologically vulnerable ecosystems around the globe (East Africa, the Sahel, southern Africa, North and Central Asia, Australia and many other pockets of ecological zones), Nile basin, the Levant and north western China are some of the places that has already witnessed potential water crisis that might transform in to water battle lines any time.
The tragic part of the story is the parallel worsening of global climate which at the same time is the cause and consequence of environmental degradation. Taking to mind the fact that global warming will exacerbate the water crisis through its direct effect on rainfall and climate, it is scary to see governments perilously ignore an issue that demands an immediate attention and action. It is not difficult to understand why they are reluctant to take any action – corporate interests.
Thanks to the selective behavior of the media and corporations, for many reasonable people it is easier to fantasize about the infant technologies that can transform salty water into potable one (many actually choose to ignore any discussions about the cost) than how to protect the environment and its most precious mineral – water. Sadly any meaningful public discussions regarding the environment have always been overshadowed by corporate interests and the unwillingness of the mainstream media to do any thing better than serving those interests.
Water infrastructure – the ability to store water is the most important element of any efficient water management. But the disparity in that capacity between the developed and the developing countries is alarming. If we take individual cases for instance, the US has the capacity to store 6,000 cubic meters per person while Ethiopia stores only 43 cubic meters per person annually. It is a pity that many of the poor countries are located in regions that are categorized as ecologically unsustainable and those with enough access to water physically are the ones with the poorest infrastructure.
What is more alarming is the unfortunate fact that, poor countries with extremely low rainfall or ground water are also much poorer both in catching and storing it. If we take the countries forming the Nile basin or Sahel region which Eritrea is a member, the prospect of water crisis is all the more real. Many of them lack the necessary infrastructures that can be taken seriously as reliable for catching and storing water. With the exception of few, many of the countries have yet to provide more than 56% of their population with access to potable water.
As bad lack would have it these countries make the frontier region between the water abundant equatorial region and the Sahara desert. According to metrologists and environmental experts the Sahara, moving tens of kilometers south to the green belt of the continent within a couple of decades is the fastest expanding ecosystem the world has so far seen. Ranking low in the development index of the UN, the Sahel countries, which are located in this gray zone posses neither the financial capacity nor the technology and man power to neutralize any effects of desertification.
All the more the prevalent challenges facing the horn of Africa; poverty, climate change, fast growing population and food security are directly tied to water resources. The magnitude of the ecological pressure facing the population of the region is immense. Theoretically speaking the region is one of the wealthiest spots in the globe in terms of water sources. But practically it remains one of the unsustainable ecological zones in the world. These highly interconnected challenges can only be addressed through a prudent developmental policy regarding water and soil conservation.
Yet the prospects for this region might be more positive. Though an exception than a rule, Eritrea has achieved admirable progress when it comes to managing water resources on the surface. The Eritrean Government has promised to provide basic services to the people since independence. True to its words almost all parts of the country, including the remotes one are now sending their children to school, getting health facilities just an hour walk in the case of the remotest and fetching water from water taps. More than 75% of the Eritrean people now have access to potable water. More importantly numerous water diversion canals, reservoirs, microdams and medium sized dams has been built, enhancing agricultural production throughout the country.
Eritrea’s exceptional achievements, relative to its meager resources, short history as an independent state with too much odds on its way and an unnecessary destructive war, in building the fundamental infrustructures for water management might help to sow some seeds of hope. True enough, but Eritrea’s exclusive focus on water as an agricultural resource leaves the image half drawn. The main objective behind the construction of the different infrastructures in the country was ensuring food sufficiency. And what is done so far seems to be more than enough for a start.
Beyond Developmental objectives
The governments’ recent emphasis on soil and water conservation is a supportive campaign to its developmental agenda that gives priority to industrialization half led by agriculture. The need to prioritize the water and soil conservation campaign is also pushed and reinforced by the foretasted sombre climate for the region. A significant rise in the number and frequency of extreme droughts and extreme rainfall could produce a systemic crisis, affecting agricultural production as well as millions of pastoralists across the region. Climate change is altering the Horn of Africa’s agricultural base and water ecology. Systems are already under pressure from human-induced resource degradation, failed past policies and population growth.
Eritrea, as a Sahel state bordering the Sahara receives an average of 700ml of rainfall annually. The slopy topograh of the country however makes impossible the retention of this few water sufficiently. And what is saved in reservoirs, micro-dams and dams have to be distributed for households, industrial uses and agricultural ventures. Initiatives to reserve water individually either in farms or households has been very limited.
The retention and storing of water should be part of our developmental policy. Our housing infrastructures either built by owners or companies should include ground reservoirs within their structures. And farmers, even traditional ones have to be encouraged to use micro reservoirs collectively. If these things could be contemplated I am sure it wan’t be difficult to see their added value in increasing the amount of rainfall that can be trapped inside Eritrea for a good use.
Saving water from its value
These statistics and arguments might be less appealing to ordinary people who know the value of water very well and use it accordingly. If people over-use water it is not because they are irresponsible, rather because it is extremely valuable. The need to cultivate the culture of wisely utilizing water is as important as retaining and storing it – we need to save water from being over-used, from its value. And that is why the need to raise public awareness about the efficient use of water should be part of the campaign for soil and water conservation.