A water crisis is quietly wreaking havoc on many developing countries, and threatens to engulf the entire world. Yet the problem is often overlooked in the West, where water is taken for granted. The burden has fallen on journalists to alert a naive European and American public about the global problem and inform them of their governments’ related efforts.
A February seminar hosted by EuropeAid, the development arm of the European Commission, and the EJC, brought journalists from across Europe to Brussels to learn about water shortage and development issues.
While the world water crisis can be difficult for many Europeans to comprehend, for a billion people in the developing world, water – and especially clean water – is scarce. Often the water that is available comes from cattle tanks or stagnant pools – breeding grounds for insects, parasites and disease. Contaminated water kills an estimated 2.2 million people every year, more fatalities than from any war. In many areas, women and children must walk great distances to get their water. The United Nations Development Programme estimated in 2006 that households in Uganda spend 660 hours a year collecting water. These lost hours take away from other important activities like education, work and rest. This lost time plus the detrimental effects of contaminated water perpetuate poverty and low life expectancy. On the global level, just 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh. And of that fresh water, 68.7 percent is contained in icecaps and glaciers.
Of human water consumption, 69 percent goes to agriculture, 23 percent to industry and only 8 percent to domestic uses. “We are already water-stressed,” said Sylvain Lhôte, Director of EU Affairs Water for the World Programme. Yet the demands are still rising. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the global demand for freshwater is doubling every 20 years. Lhôte insists the question is not “if,” “but where the tap is running dry.” Although Europeans are not faced with the immediate challenges encountered in developing countries, they are nonetheless affected. If nothing else, their taxes go to programmes of the European Commission dedicated to development and water security in other countries.
The European Commission focuses most of its water and sanitation aid on the ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific). Based on a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation,” the Commission established the ACP-EU Water Facility in 2004. The 10th and latest European Development Fund has allocated 200m euro for the Facility. In addition, other geographical aid programmes provide financial assistance for water projects and the European Investment Bank gives loans for water sector development programmes.
“You can’t be happy as a human being if there is suffering somewhere else,” the new European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, told journalists at the EJC seminars in an appeal to European idealism. While such noble sentiment may be reason enough for Europe to help, there are also practical implications facing the continent. In an increasingly globalised world, stress in one part often spills into others. Water stress can lead to poverty, migration, civil unrest and political instability. Europe is sure to be impacted. As Thanasis Troboukis, editor of the Greek science magazine In Vitro, said, “Water is an issue that meets no borders.” Europe will be affected by problems abroad and at home.
Water stress is a looming challenge here as well. Demand is rising in Europe too. And the affects of climate change, though uncertain, may prove troublesome for a continent accustomed to plenty of water – and unaccustomed to efficiency or conservation. Lhôte argues water supply and climate change are closely related. Despite the attention climate change receives in the media and the efforts of the European Commission to combat water problems, the reality is, many people in the developed world – where the resources reside to confront the water crisis – are simply unaware of the problem. Journalists will need to bridge the gap. “The role of journalists here [the water issue],” said Gregor Zamude of the Slovenian Press Agency, is “no different than in any other area that affects the public.” Journalists need to “scrutinise, interpret (make comprehendable) as objectively as possible the policies pursued by individual players, and subject them to approval or rejection.”
With so many different players involved, water policies can be difficult to implement, especially if the public is unaware of the problems. “However,” Troboukis insists, “journalists have the needed power to discharge pressure towards nations for measures to be taken.” First journalists themselves need to understand the issue. Troboukis explained that development issues are complicated – like a puzzle. And without all the pieces, the truth is incomplete.
The EJC seminar gathered all the pieces together: scientists, policy makers, NGOs, commissioners, etc. The seminar, he said, helped “international journalists to gain knowledge, expand their contacts and get closer to the truth.” Informed journalists are key in confronting the water crisis, tasked to inform the public of the problem and how the European Union is responding. They hold the power to turn up the volume on a global crisis that has yet to attract global attention or solutions.