WRI study reveals how cheap water causes scarcity, ecosystem decline

A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) reveals that water policies in most of the world are failing to protect the world's freshwater systems, resulting in growing water scarcity and alarming declines in the numbers of aquatic plants and animals.

WASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2001 — A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) reveals that water policies in most of the world are failing to protect the world's freshwater systems, resulting in growing water scarcity and alarming declines in the numbers of aquatic plants and animals.

"Freshwater is undervalued the world over," said co-author Nels Johnson, deputy director of WRI's Biological Resources Program. "Freshwater ecosystems are not being managed effectively for people or for nature."

The study, "Managing Water for People and Nature," is published in this week's issue of Science.

The study recommends that water prices should reflect the cost of supplying and distributing water. It also recommends that the cost of protecting watersheds should be included in the price of water, as well as charging polluters for their effluents.

Governments continue to subsidize water due to opposition from farmers and urban poor. "However, farmers and the urban residents will support full-cost pricing of water if they can be assured of a reliable supply," said Jaime Echeverria, a WRI economist and co-author of the study.

Price reforms in Chile reduced the use of irrigated water by as much as 26 percent and saved $400 million in new water infrastructure. In Andhra Pradesh, India, farmers agreed to a three-fold increase in water prices as part of a package that also boosted their role in running the irrigation agency.

The authors said that without reforms in the pricing of water, freshwater supplies will continue to grow scarce. They project that by 2025, five out of every 10 people will be living in water-stressed river basins. Currently, 38 percent of the world's population live in such areas.

Water is not only becoming scarce because of increased demand, but also because of higher pollution levels and habitat degradation.

"The state of plant and animal life in freshwater ecosystems is far worse than for forests, grasslands or coastal areas," said co-author Carmen Revenga. Freshwater ecosystems occupy less than one percent of the earth's surface.

The study says that contamination denies as many as 3.3 billion people access to clean water. In addition, more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater fish have become extinct, endangered or threatened in recent decades.

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