The Global Water Crisis

09/15/2011 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

On September 16, 2011, water experts will gather in New York for a conference at the United Nations entitled the "International Water Forum", the focus of which will be the alarming global water predicament.

The mood at the U.N. will be somber. The water supply and sanitation situation around the world can only be described as abysmal. Currently, 1.5 million children under 5 die of preventable water related diseases every year (4,000 every day), around 900 million people (1 in 6) have no access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion (2 in 6) lack adequate sanitation. In the developing world, 90% of wastewater is dumped untreated into water bodies, spreading contamination and disease and spawning "dead zones". The World Bank reports that 80 countries are suffering water shortages. One has to wonder whether the horror occurring in the Horn of Africa is a forerunner of things to come in other parts of the world.

This already desperate situation will only worsen with climate change and population growth. Climate change is likely to accelerate desertification (thus reducing arable land in certain areas), alter precipitation patterns, generate extreme weather events, and produce harsher and longer drought cycles. The U.N. has estimated that the world's population will grow by an additional 3 billion people by 2050. Thus, population growth and climate change are on a cataclysmic collision course. Just how enough water can be found to support this number of people is, next to addressing climate change itself, the most fundamental issue facing humanity.

Additionally, water inadequacy poses a national security issue for the United States. Around the world, 215 major rivers and 300 groundwater aquifers are shared by two or more countries. Growing shortages will lead to conflicts into which the U.S. will be dragged. Competing water claims in the Middle East, and escalating friction between India and Pakistan over water diversions, are particularly worrying in this regard.

With all this, one would think that developed countries would have devoted greater resources to tackle water insufficiency and deficient sanitation at their source, rather than executing costly reactive rescue missions to deal with the epidemics, famines, refugee crises, and mass exoduses that are their consequences. And yet, the work to effectuate solutions (such as improved irrigation, integrated water management, wastewater reuse, better sanitation practices, more effective public-private partnerships, trans-boundary cooperation, and enhanced public education) have so far proven unequal to this colossal challenge.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted 18 objectives called the Millennium Development Goals ("MGDs"). Target 10 was the reduction of the number of people living without water and sanitation by half by 2015.

In releasing the recent 2011 Millennium Development Goals Report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon described the progress as "uneven". Regarding Target 10, the Report was likewise mixed, stating that while the drinking water goal was on track, "more than 1 in 10 people may still be without access in 2015". Despite advances, an estimated 884 million people still rely on unimproved water sources for drinking (as of 2008). As disturbing as that may be, sanitation presents an even bleaker picture: "The world is far from meeting the sanitation target." The Report adds: "... some 2.6 billion people globally were not using an improved form of sanitation in 2008. That year, an estimated 1.1 billion people did not use any facility at all and practiced open defecation...". The Report finds some encouragement in the fact that frequent sanitation conferences are being held "to ensure that sanitation... receives the attention it deserves."

Indeed, keeping attention focused on the global water crisis with the hope of spurring additional action is the very goal of the International Water Forum.

And Los Angeles is part of the intended audience and can be a part of the needed solution. While we will never experience the misery afflicting much of the rest of the world, we do live in a semi-arid region and are heavily reliant on imported water resources, which may not expand to meet our future needs. And, although we are enjoying a respite at the moment, we will have more intense droughts and shortages in the future. We simply must make the necessary investments today to secure new water resources. That means implementing strategies such as additional conservation, infrastructure repair, improved building standards, wastewater recycling, groundwater remediation, rainfall capture, and underground storage.

By taking these steps, we will not only better prepare for our next water crisis here at home, but we will gain additional insight and expertise in how to most efficiently produce "new" water. Sharing that knowledge with those in the world less fortunate than us may be the greatest contribution Los Angeles can make to alleviating the global water crisis.

David Nahai is a water and energy consultant and lawyer. He is the former General Manager and Commission President of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He is also the former Chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Board. Jim Thebaut is a documentary film maker and environmental planner. His current project, "Running Dry, Beyond the Brink" covers the global water crisis.