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UN chief warns of widespread ills from global water crisis

March 22, 2018

Afghanistan's United Nations ambassador Mahmoud Saikal, center, speaks in the General Assembly for the launch of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, Thursday, March 22, 2018, at U.N. headquarters. Sitting also are, Secretary-General António Guterres, left, and Movses Abelian, right, an assistant secretary-general. (Manuel Elias/United Nations via AP)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put a spotlight on the global water crisis on World Water Day, saying Thursday that over 2 billion people lack access to safe water and more than 3 billion are affected by the scarcity of water.

The U.N. chief warned that by 2050, “at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water will be chronic or recurrent.”

He told diplomats and activists at the launch of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development that “water is a matter of life and death,” stressing that humans, cities, industries and agriculture depend on it.

“But growing demands for water, coupled with poor water management, have increased water stress in many parts of the world,” Guterres said. “Climate change is adding to the pressure — and it is running faster than we are.”

The secretary-general said more than 4.5 billion people lack adequate sanitation, 80 percent of wastewater is discharged into the environment without being treated, “and more than 90 percent of disasters are water-related.”

“The growing water crisis should be much higher on the world’s radar,” Guterres stressed.

He said he has prepared an action plan to achieve U.N. goals for 2030, which include providing clean water and sanitation, protecting the environment, promoting economic development and achieving “zero hunger.”

Guterres said it’s time to change “how we value and manage water.”

In low-income countries, he said, women and girls “spend some 40 billion hours a year collecting water,” equivalent to the entire workforce of a country like France. That time could be much better spent working, or in the case of girls going to school, he said.

According to the U.N. World Water Development Report released this week, “the global demand for water has been increasing at a rate of about 1 percent per year as a function of population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns, among other factors — and it will continue to grow significantly over the next two decades.”

In a statement at the launch, the 23 countries in the Group of Friends on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought said a third of the planet’s land “is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tons a year.”

The group mainly contributed those problems to water shortages.

“Three-quarters of the Earth is covered with water,” it said. “Yet, only 2.5 percent is fresh water, and of this, less than 1 percent is available to sustain all terrestrial life and ecosystems.”

General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak said competition for water is also growing. “And so is the risk that this competition could turn violent, and result in conflict — and therefore more human suffering,” he said.

He called for greater cooperation, investment and innovation and said all governments must make water and sanitation top priorities.

On the innovation front, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon hosted a forum Thursday to present the latest water solutions from the country’s public and private sector, which he said are used in more than 100 countries around the world.

Among the technologies presented were innovations that generate water from air and a device that produces pure drinking water from contaminated sources in difficult conditions.

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