Thirsty world faces up to water fears

A new generation of young professionals meet to tackle the impact of worsening droughts and population growth as well as threat of war.

SYDNEY // The next generation of water experts met this week in Australia to tackle the threat of war and climate change on the world's supplies. Representatives from 25 countries gathered at the International Young Water Professionals conference to look at ways to keep taps flowing in the face of worsening droughts and population growth.

"We want to make the young water professionals understand that they are the future of the global water industry," said Rita Henderson, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, which hosted the conference. "We all feel passionately about water. We believe water is a human right." Experts from Oman, Kenya and Austria joined others from across the world to discuss sustainability and how communities in drier regions must adapt to warmer temperatures to safeguard precious supplies into the future.

The meeting dealt with basic issues of survival, said Katerina Ruzicka, a research assistant at the Institute of Water Quality at Vienna's University of Technology. "A huge problem we are facing besides climate change is water for food," Ms Ruzicka said. "We have to feed a growing population and you need water to produce food. "Somehow we will be able to cope with it because humans do always somehow cope with huge challenges in one way or another."

Ensuring that supplies continue to flow to the nation's homes and businesses has been a pressing concern for authorities in Australia. It is the world's driest inhabited continent and rainfall patterns have become increasingly erratic. State governments have bickered with each other over irrigation rights in prized river basins as a long drought strangles parched areas of the country's outback. Professor Richard Stuetz, a leading authority on the environment at the University of New South Wales, believes that quarrels over water could boil over into serious disputes between competing interests.

"There is definitely going to be a political fight both here in Australia and in different parts of the world. "It would be sad if countries went to war over the availability of water. "Definitely in some parts of the Middle East, where rivers flow from Turkey down into Syria and on into Jordan, there is going to be significant tension that could, like oil has in the past, be the starting point for conflict," he warned.

Australia has also looked to the Gulf states for inspiration to help it drought-proof its major cities. This has led to the construction of desalination plants in Perth on its dry west coast as well as Sydney, the fast-growing eastern hub that continues to groan under the weight of record levels of immigration and population growth. The conference heard that developed countries should invest in a range of actions to ensure their towns and cities do not run dry in the future.

The measures include developing new sources, greater recycling, less consumption and farming practices that guzzle less water. While wealthy countries can afford to extract salt from the sea, those in poorer regions must look for other solutions. "Desalination is perfect for you here in Sydney because it is a nice alternative but in other parts of the world like Africa they can't even think of that. They don't have the resources to build things like that," said Ms Ruzicka.

Efforts are being made to improve sanitation and provide clean water to disadvantaged communities in parts of east Africa, with assistance from the World Bank. "Water is a human right but in Africa that is not the case," said Sheila Karimi, a delegate from Kenya, who presented a paper to the Sydney conference on the plight of the country's urban poor. "To some people, access to just basic clean water is actually a privilege, so I thought it would be good to share this with the rest of the world."

Ms Karimi explained how Kenya's water authorities do not yet have the money to pump life-changing supplies to impoverished slums. However, she was optimistic that real progress might only be a few years away with more international help. "It would make a big, big difference to the poor. Hygiene and public health would be greatly improved," she said. "Once you provide basic access to safe water then so many things can change. We can have reduction in waterborne diseases and our people will get time to be more productive in economic activities or go to school."

Adrian Puigarnau, a programme officer at the International Water Association, said young professionals felt the weight of expectation from an increasingly thirsty world but insisted that there were many bright minds eager to offer solutions. "We are telling the world that you might not need to be an engineer or a scientist to be working in the water sector," said Mr Puigarnau. "You could be an economist, a lawyer or an architect to create more sustainable cities to use the water more efficiently.

"After all, water is the key to life," he added.