6 June 2003





World Environment Day June 5:  Water -- Two Billion People Are Dying For It!



(Reissued as received.)



BEIRUT/NAIROBI, 5 June (UNEP) -- Many of the world's “natural underground reservoirs”, upon which 2 billion people depend for drinking water and irrigation, are under increasing stress and strain, a new report launched on World Environment Day shows.


The report, by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), paints a worrying picture of this critical, hidden, natural resource as growing and thirsty cities, industries and agriculture take their toll.  It cites cases from across the world to highlight the global threat while also outlining a range of options to help secure and conserve supplies.


In Arizona, the United States, 400 million cubic metres of ground water is being removed annually which is about double the amount being replaced by recharge from rainfall.


Almost a fifth of the water in storage in the huge Ogalla/High Plains Aquifer of the Midwest of the United States has been removed. The water table there has fallen in recent decades by, on average, three metres and up to 30 metres in some places.


Other countries highlighted include Mexico where the number of aquifers considered over-exploited has jumped from 32 in 1975 to nearly 130 by the 1990s, says the report, Groundwater and its Susceptibility to Degradation. Impacts, include contamination by salt as seawater seeps in to replace the freshwater loss and contamination from the surface caused by pumping. Land subsidence causing damage to property and infrastructure has been recorded in several states including Mexico City, Queretaro and Celaya, as a result of the falling water table.


In Spain, more than half of the nearly 100 aquifers are over-exploited. “In the important Segura River Basin of eastern Spain, the ratio of ground water storage depletion to available renewable water resources has increased from less than 20 per cent in the mid-1980s to 130 per cent by 1995.”


Ironically, some cities in very dry and arid regions like the Arabian Gulf are suffering a form of flooding, known as waterlogging, because of a heavy dependence on desalinated water from the coast which is leaking and becoming trapped in the ground.


A typical Arabian Gulf coast city may be losing as much as a third of its water supplies to leaky mains and even more from over-watering of parks and gardens.  This heavy reliance on treated sea-water is, in some cases, partly due to these cities having polluted their own underground waters making them unfit for human consumption.


The report, which is being released at the main World Environment Day celebrations in Lebanon, is also being launched at several key locations around the world including at a conference in London, United Kingdom, on 4 June called Environment Day “Event 2003”.  This is being hosted by Barbara Young, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency.


Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said:  “Some 2 billion people and as much as 40 per cent of agriculture is at least partly reliant on these hidden stores.  Groundwater also supplements river flows, springs and wetlands vital for rural and urban communities and wildlife.  Indeed most of the world's liquid freshwaters are found not in rivers and lakes, but below ground”. (Vital Water Graphics 2002 can be found at http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/index.htm)


“We are here in Lebanon for World Environment Day, the first time the event has been held in the Arab world.  This report will have particular resonance in a region where it is estimated that in some areas over 90 per cent of the population could be suffering severe water stress by 2032”, he said.


Mr. Toepfer said the past 50 years had been marked by dramatic increases in the use of ground waters as populations have grown, demand for food has climbed and industrialization has expanded in the developed and into the developing world.


“This report is both cause for hope and concern.  It shows that many underground supplies are proving quite resilient to chemical and other kinds of pollutants because slow passage through the rocks above them helps reduce or even eliminate health-hazardous substances before they reach supplies”, he added.


“However, they appear more vulnerable to neglect or over-use. If a lake, river or reservoir becomes depleted or dries up, the event is highly visible, there is public outcry and often action taken.  I hope that this report will serve as a wake up call concerning the human, social and economic consequences of squandering our vital underground water supplies.  Hopefully its findings will ensure that underground water supplies are no longer ‘out of sight and thus out of mind’, but quite rightly conserved for current and future generations”, said Mr. Toepfer.


The United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the water component of the World Summit on Sustainable Development's Plan of Implementation will be almost impossible to achieve without improvements in water efficiency in agriculture, industry and households which should in turn conserve freshwaters above and below ground.


Martin Walshe, Senior Water Adviser at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), said: “The importance of water and its fundamental contribution to sustainable development is now recognized, but the contribution of water to poverty reduction will only be realized if it is set in the broader context of social and economic development and environmental improvement.  At a regional level, groundwater is of huge importance in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.  Nationally, countries from Palestine to Denmark are dependent on groundwater and examples of local reliance can be drawn from Mexico City to Ethiopia”.


“In a rural context, groundwater provides the mainstay for agricultural irrigation and will be the key to providing additional resources for food security. However, concerns are growing over the sustainability of individual water sources and there is a growing need for management strategies that recognize the complex linkages that exist between groundwater supplies, urban land use and effluent disposal”, he added.


Brian Morris, principal hydrogeologist at the British Geological Survey in the United Kingdom which has been involved in the report, said:  “The difficulty in managing groundwaters lies in the fact that they are often easy and relatively cheap to tap for large numbers of users. What is needed is pragmatic management such as increasing public and government awareness, properly resourcing the agencies that manage groundwater, supporting community management and encouraging the use of incentives and disincentives particularly in poorer countries and rural areas. It is vital we give groundwaters value like any other scarce resource”.


Key Findings


Falling Water Tables


The UNEP report, compiled in conjunction with the British Geological Survey and funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and Belgian Development Cooperation, links the fate of many of the world's growing cities with the prudent management of their underground water supplies.


It lists 12 megacities, ones whose populations exceed 10 million, who are dependent on ground waters. These are Bangkok, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Calcutta, Dhaka, Jakarta, London, Manila, Mexico City, Shanghai and Tehran.


Rural areas can also be heavily dependent on groundwaters. The report highlights rural India where 50 per cent of irrigation water and 80 per cent of drinking water, much of which is brought to the surface from a network of 3 million hand-pumped wells, comes from underground.


Some countries are heavily dependent on aquifers for agriculture. Saudi Arabia's agriculture is almost exclusively dependent on aquifers with 96 per cent of its water for irrigation coming from underground. This is followed by Bangladesh, 69 per cent; Tunisia, 61 per cent; Syria, 60 per cent; India, 53 per cent and Pakistan, 34 per cent.


Some arid parts of the world have identified vast reserves of ancient groundwater, so called palaeowater, formed thousands of years ago in a wetter climatic period.  Libya, for example, is taking 7 million litres of water a minute from over 1,000 boreholes that tap aquifer systems below remote areas in the Southern Sahara. The water is transported in pipes, the ‘Great Man-Made River’, to the Mediterranean Coast 500 to 900 kilometres away.


Dhaka, Bangladesh, is an example of how heavy abstraction from urban aquifers can trigger profound impacts. There are now an estimated 1,300 boreholes tapping underground water for the city and its suburbs. In some areas the water table has fallen by as much as 40 metres. New boreholes are producing a third less than ones dug in the 1970s as a result, surveys show.


In Lima, Peru, deeper and more expensive boreholes are having to be dug to meet demand and the energy costs of water production have risen by a quarter.


The risks of over-exploitation can be catastrophic in economic terms, especially in rural areas dependent on irrigation. The freshwater can become contaminated with salt, making it unfit for human consumption and most agriculture. Removing the salt is costly and energy-intensive, making it too expensive for many developing countries to consider.


Rising Water Tables


Paradoxically, in some very dry parts of the world, water levels are rising with striking effects.


In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the population has soared from 20,000 in 1920 to over 1.2 million. Piped water is being pumped from the coast from desalination plants, which remove salt from seawater, to meet a high demand of more than 600 litres per person per day.


An estimated one third of the piped water is lost to leaks from the city's mains. At the same time, there are losses from underground storage tanks. Over-irrigation of lawns, road-side verges and parks means that a great deal of water is now leaking into the ground. The geology under Riyadh is such that the water cannot easily seep away. Basements and pipes have been damaged and deformed. The city has been forced to deploy expensive pumping equipment to tackle the problem.


The report cites Kuwait and Doha, Qatar, as suffering similar problems. It says that here additional impacts are being felt. The de-salinized water, percolating through the ground, is dissolving naturally-occurring salts that in turn attack and corrode concrete and the steel-reinforcing of foundations and other infrastructure.


Fixing leaky pipes, metering, pricing reform, incentives for drip irrigation and hosepipe bans are among a range of measures that might reduce losses and the phenomenon of ‘water-logging’ being witnessed in some areas of the Arabian Gulf.




World-wide, the ground is used for the disposal of all kinds of wastes. Fortunately, many toxic wastes are absorbed and broken down by natural processes such as bacteria. However, some are not so easily degraded and in some cases so much waste is entering the ground, that its natural ability to break down pollutants is exceeded.


Meanwhile, not all the rock strata is the same and some are less efficient at neutralizing pollutants.  This can also threaten the viability of local underground supplies.


Merida, Mexico, highlights this concern. Concentrations of sewage-linked bacteria can, in some groundwaters, be several thousand times higher than that allowed under international health limits.


Elsewhere, other potentially damaging pollution includes pesticides, fertilizers and industrial chemicals and wastes.


Research from Barbados, where the weedkillers atrazine and ametryn are applied widely, has found pesticide contamination in boreholes as high as 3 microgrammes per litre, or 50 per cent higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline.


On Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, levels of fertilizer-linked nitrates have been detected in underground water sources at levels as high as 170 milligrammes per litre. The contamination, which is 120 milligrammes higher than the WHO guideline limit, is related to banana production.


Solving the Problems


The report makes numerous suggestions on how groundwaters can be conserved and sustainably managed.  But it concedes that many potential improvements and remedies are politically and socially difficult unless long-term goals are adopted.


Those managing water supplies, such as water agencies and government water departments, need to manage groundwaters in tandem with rivers, lakes and reservoirs, a so-called Integrated Water Management approach.


Economic actions, not directly related to groundwater, may have a big impact on water use.  Promoting alternative rural livelihoods, such as brick making and textiles, which are less water intensive than agriculture, may help diversify the economy away from heavy reliance on irrigation which has become a particularly heavy and low-value use of groundwater. Indeed economic development generally can give a country and its communities ‘more options’ leading to less reliance on ground and surface waters as a whole.


Diversifying rural economies may require investments in training and the availability of credit to get small, alternative, businesses up and running. The report says this may require new thinking among traditional water agencies involving alliances with departments of industry, commerce and education.


In many developing countries, including ones in Africa, a chronic lack of hard facts on the condition of their groundwaters makes it difficult to draw up action plans. Making these hard facts publicly available is even more crucial and vital for building trust when aquifers are shared between one or more countries.


A monitoring and early warning project, coordinated by UNEP and the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, in seven West African cities including Abidjan, Niamey and Dakar has helped by pin-pointing ‘pollution hot spots’ and threats to aquifers. The scheme has been extended to three countries in Eastern Africa which are Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia.


Notes to Editors


The report, “Groundwater and its Susceptibility to Degradation : A global assessment of the problem and options for management”, is available at  Earthprint (www.earthprint.com).  It is also available, along with the report on West African city aquifers, at http://www.unep.org/DEWA/water/groundwater/


Each year, the main World Environment Day celebrations are held in a city at the invitation of the Government.  This year it will be in Beirut.


World Environment Day, considered one of the most important events on the environment calendar, is celebrated every year in more than 100 countries.  The occasion serves to inspire political and community action.  Governments, individuals, non-governmental organizations, community and youth groups, business, industry and the media undertake a variety of activities aimed at renewing their commitment to the protection of the environment.


Individuals and organizations are invited to post details about their planned World Environment Day events and learn about what others are doing to celebrate World Environment Day across the globe.  The World Environment Day Web site is www.unep.org/wed


For more information, please contact:  Eric Falt, UNEP Spokesman/Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information; tel.: 254 2 623292, mobile:  254 (0) 733 682656, e-mail:  eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media; tel.:  254 2 623084, mobile:  254 (0) 733 632755, e-mail:  nick.nuttall@unep.org






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