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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Water forum warns of shortages

The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — An international summit on global water supplies opened Thursday with presidents and princes calling for solutions to shortages and inequalities in the most basic of commodities.

Organizers of the weeklong forum said their goal was to improve water supplies for the poor. But opponents claimed their real mission was privatization.

"Water is a public possession that all governments must guarantee," Mexican President Vicente Fox said in his welcoming speech at the Mexico City convention center, where 11,000 delegates and representatives of about 130 countries met behind closed doors.

Loic Fauchon, president of the nongovernmental World Water Council, told the fourth World Water Forum that the poor often struggle to obtain decent, affordable water. He said developed countries should create a huge investment fund to finance water-system improvements in the world's 50 poorest countries and 20 poorest megacities.

"Water is endangered, and with it, so are we all," Fauchon said, referring to increased pollution and eroded watersheds that are damaging water supplies as demand continues to climb.

Demand is growing particularly in developing countries, where many get by on less than 4.5 gallons of water per day.

But past efforts to remedy the problems have failed. Speaking at the summit opening, Prince Naruhito of Japan acknowledged that "little progress has been made despite continuous efforts by many people."

Water warnings


The total volume of water on Earth is estimated at about 340 million cubic miles, of which only 2.5 percent is fresh water.

Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of the world's water consumption. Industry and the domestic sector use about 5 percent each.

At least 1.1 billion people, about a fifth of the world's population, do not have access to safe drinking water. Most of them live in Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

The United Nations says the world has plenty of fresh water but lack of access is caused by mismanagement and corruption.

At least 2 million people, most of them children, die each year from water-related diseases caused by lack of access to clean water and sanitation.

Sources: Reuters, UNESCO, U.N. Environment Program

The poor often pay far more for their water today than they did when the first global water forum was held in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997.

Many nongovernmental organizations and environmental activists have complained about campaigns to privatize water systems, an approach that is meant to upgrade systems through private investment — but that sometimes leads to rate increases.

Bottled water, on the other hand, has earned good profits and little attention.

"It's in some way sort of a stealth privatization," said Janet Larsen, research director for the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group. Larsen noted that the biggest gains in bottled-water sales are in developing countries.

Mexico, where about 40 percent of the nation's 103 million residents live in poverty, is now the second-largest consumer of bottled water in the world, just behind the U.S.

Sales of bottled water in China jumped by more than 250 percent between 1999 and 2004. They tripled in India and almost doubled in Indonesia, according to a study released by the institute.

It's not because people can suddenly afford the luxury of bottled water; rather, the tap water in some countries is so bad that people are loath to use it, sometimes even for bathing.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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