Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

ABU DHABI - An estimated 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. There are nearly 250 million cases of water-related diseases and five to 10 million deaths annually.

By Muawia E. Ibrahim

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Published: Sun 12 Oct 2003, 12:31 PM

Last updated: Wed 1 Apr 2015, 11:34 PM

These alarming figures came in a presentation by a senior United Nations official in the capital on Monday. In his presentation, titled 'The impact of environmental pollution', at the Security and Safety Conference Middle East 2003, Dr Habib Nicolas El Habr, Deputy Regional Director of the United Nations Environment Programme's Regional Office for West Asia (UNEP/ROWA) said the world today faces major environmental challenges including changes in global conditions such as oceans, freshwater, climate change and atmosphere pollution, biological resources, desertification and land degradation.

There are also challenges posed by environmental emergencies, urbanisation and industrial development.

Detailing these threats and quoting official statistics, Dr Habr said an estimated 1.2 million barrels of oil are spilled in West Asia region every year from routine discharge of ballast water and other releases from loading and transport.

An estimated 10-20 species are lost daily due to pollution. It is also estimated that desertification and land degradation is increasing by five per cent annually.

"At the global level, marine environment is facing real threat. Coastal environment is polluted by a number of land-based pollutants, particularly wastes. Red tides and linked eutrophication have increased in many coastal areas. Over two thirds of world's fish stocks are being fished at or beyond their maximum."

On freshwater problem, Dr Habr said there was an emerging water crisis in some regions of the world, pointing out that one third of the world's population is living under moderate or severe water stress. He said the underlying causes were population growth, income growth and rapid urbanisation. "Water is treated as social commodity not an economic commodity, leading to wasteful practices," he said.

The official also spoke about the impact of environmental pollution on biodiversity. He pointed out that five to 20 per cent species are listed as endangered, adding that loss of species disrupts ecological balance and can mean loss of potentially important resources such as food and medicines.

Highlighting another environmental problem, Dr Habr said 80 per cent of land in West Asia is desert or desertified. "Population growth and pressure for food production has led to forming of marginal areas. It is a combination of many issues such as physical, biological, political, social, cultural and economic factors.

"Land degradation will have many impacts including food security and health prospects, poverty, prospect for large scale migration, loss of genetic and species biodiversity, loss of productivity and impairment of aquatic ecosystems through sediment and general environmental degradation," he added.

Dr Habr briefed the audience on the problem of climate change which is considered another alarming issue by experts. "The earth is naturally subject to a "greenhouse effect" due to CO2 in the atmosphere, he added.

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