A 'World Water Vision' requires action today

The 22nd of March has joined a long list of dates to mark on your activists calendar. Following the World Water Forum in The Hague, the United Nations has launched the first annual 'World Water Day'. Will this be yet another slogan to motivate the public that results in very little action and change.

The reasons why we need a World Water Day were made clear at the World Water Forum. Currently, nearly 450 million people in 29 countries face water shortage problems. This figure is projected to jump to nearly 2.5 billion people by 2050. Around 1.4 billion people live without clean drinking water; seven million die every year from water-borne diseases; half the world's rivers and lakes are seriously polluted; water shortages could create millions of environmental refugees. To counter future water-wars, floods, droughts, climate change and premature deaths associated with the poor quality and insufficient quantity of water, the conference organisers have drawn up a '25 Year Vision'.

Having been dedicated for 10 years towards the world's worst environmental disaster that has at its roots the mismanagement of water resources, I am deeply concerned about the population living around the former Aral Sea in Central Asia. Recognising that the Aral Sea area disaster is a fable of our time, I am just as worried that as a species, we still have not learned how to safeguard our precious and finite water resources and the future health of the billions of people who are at direct risk.

As part of the Soviet economic development strategy, Central Asia's contribution to the Cold War was to grow enough cotton to provide uniforms for the Soviet military's 3 million soldiers. Cotton is a thirsty plant, and provide enough water for the mass industrialisation of agriculture that began in the late 1950s, a huge and expanding network of inefficient and ineffective irrigation schemes began to spread across the land from the only two rivers that fed the sea. Twenty times the normal amount of pesticides, herbicides and defoliants were poured into the ground.

Today, these rivers barely trickle into the evaporating Aral Sea, which has shrunk faster than map-makers can keep up: what was the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, now ranks around the 10th.

The increase in salt concentration has killed off all 22 species of fish that once were the livelihood of thriving fishing communities. These communities, now over 100 km's away from the receding Sea, have seen utter economic collapse.

As the massive body of water within a desert environment continued to desiccate, the regional climate has been affected, resulting in hotter summers, as temperatures reach upwards of 50 degrees Celsius, and colder winters dipping below minus 20 degrees. Wind blowing across dried-up sea bed whips up over 150 000 tonnes of toxic laden salt dust every year and blows it back into the face of the 5 million people still living in the region. It is estimated that when the Aral Sea completely dries up, over 15 billion tonnes of salts will be liberated into the environment.

Water mismanagement has effected all the communities throughout the region. The water table has risen to within 2 meters in some places. The groundwater, a source of drinking water for many, has a salt content as high as 6 gram per litre. Over 60% of agricultural land has become salinized, severely hampering the long-term sustainability of agriculture which accounts for more than 80% of the economy. In the spring the flat landscape (only interrupted by endless irrigation canals) is covered in a thick crust of salt, as far as the eye can see.

In the midst of this still largely unknown or overlooked catastrophe, 5 million people are struggling for their survival, breathing the toxic air, drinking the salty and polluted waters. The region has the highest rate of tuberculosis in all of Europe and the former Soviet Union, and one of the highest rates of anaemia and respiratory infections in the world. Kidney, heart and cancer diseases are increasing.

The Aral Sea is an important lesson for the rest of humanity. We all need water to live. In the last 50 years, amid ignorance and apathy from the international community the population of the Aral Sea area have lost their economy, their health, their wealth and their future. How useful will the international communities 'Vision for the next 25 years' be for them? Without direct humanitarian assistance, the World Water Day will hardly be a celebration in the Aral Sea area. The World Bank must revalidate it's activities in the region. Other UN organisations should also evaluate what little they have done and press forward with programs that will assist the population in restoring their health. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation who has taken upon themselves to draft a 25 year Vision for the region, must begin to recognise that the solutions to the regions problems can not be brought to bare on the back of the population living in the Aral Sea area.

Plotting a course for the world's water is an immense and commendable task, but it should not be at the expense of action today. Notions of sustainable development for the future are redundant and antithetical when the viability of today's generation is in doubt.