From: Michael Byrnes, Reuters
Published September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Governments Need to Act to Avert Water Crisis

SYDNEY, Australia — Strong action is needed to avert a global water crisis that has deprived 1 billion of the world's poor of drinking water and has killed millions through diarrhea, an international expert warned.


A massive amount of work was required by governments to increase water efficiency in the same way they addressed the energy crisis of three decades ago, said Professor Frank Rijsberman, general manager of the multilateral government-backed International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka.


"(We're) in the middle of a paradigm shift from taking water for granted to seeing it as one of the most important priorities," he said in a telephone interview from the International Crop Science Congress in Brisbane, Australia. "We're not going to really run out of water, but we have our work cut out to try to use it more effectively, more efficiently."


Rijsberman forecast growing conflicts for scarce water between cities and farms and between different regions and users. But he said there were solutions: water markets that rationed supplies by forcing users to pay and governments that strictly regulated water use.


Water reforms now being introduced in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, offered a model for much of the rest of the world, he said.


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The Australian government recently announced a A$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) national water plan based on engineering works to rehabilitate river flows, conservation through capped irrigation offtakes, guaranteed access for farmers — and a national water rights trading plan.


Water pricing is the key, with trading already taking place in three markets of water assets, such as licences for a year's supply of irrigated water. Rijsberman said this was a model for many other countries.


Reforms in China that required farmers to pay for water in a strictly regulated system had also shown that more rice could be produced with less water, Rijsberman said.


But water reform faced its greatest challenge in countries like Indonesia and India, which were less able to regulate themselves.


In India, private farmers had taken the initiative of installing 20 million small pumps that were just as important for them as big government-built dams. Yet the pumps were draining the land dry, he said.


"In Gujarat ... farmers during their lifetime have seen the water table go down from about 10 meters to about 150 meters below the surface. There is a lot of private initiative. But farmers have ... left a lot of people high and dry and migrating to the cities to go and live in slums," he said.


Rijsberman forecast that water use by cities and industry would rise rapidly, pushing water prices higher and out-competing agriculture as a high-volume, low-cost user.


"Water productivity — how many kilos does a farmer get per hectare out of every millimeter of either rainfall or water supplied — that is key," he said.


Source: Reuters


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