Stockholm - A major weeklong international water conference opened in the Swedish capital Monday with an ominous warning: time is running out faster than fresh water.
If the "massive and complex challenges" facing one of the world's most finite natural resources are not resolved soon, the future looks grimly devastating: scarcities, pollution, droughts, floods, desertification and diseases.
Gunilla Carlsson, the Swedish minister for international development cooperation, described the recent floods in Pakistan as one of the major natural disasters facing that country.
"We are deeply concerned about the situation in Pakistan," she said, of a country where over 60 years of infrastructure development has been literally washed away in a water- related calamity in the flood-affected regions.
She said the Swedish government has so far responded with 20 million dollars in assistance to Pakistan.
Carlsson said the most affected - as in most natural disasters - were the poor and the most vulnerable in society. At last count, over 1,700 have died while more than 1.2 million homes and schools have been destroyed by the floods, according to reports from Pakistan.
Carlsson said there could be more deaths from water-borne diseases, even as Pakistan struggles to cope with the disaster.
Speaking at the opening ceremony in a city surrounded by water, Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), warned: "Bad water kills more people than HIV, malaria and wars together, affecting the lives of families and the economic development of many countries around the world."
"We are also increasingly seeing that ecosystems and their services are being degraded by pollution, which will affect all functions of society," he added.
The conference, attended by more than 2,500 key water experts, will focus on the theme: "Responding to Global Changes: The Water Quality Challenge."
This is the 20th consecutive year that SIWI is hosting its 'World Water Week' in a city described as Europe's "first green capital".
This year, Berntell said, weather patterns have been increasingly erratic. "We cannot say that any of these individual events are effects of climate change, but the patterns coincide with the scenarios that scientists have predicted: snowfall, floods and severe droughts," he noted. He regretted that many representatives from Pakistan couldn't attend the conference.
"We share the frustration and despair of all those affected, and we share the concern with many over the fact that our leaders did not resume their responsibilities (at the last failed Climate Change conference) in Copenhagen."
In international discussions on water, there is a tendency to focus on the availability of water, but not quality.
"Poor water quality affects human lives and livelihoods and the function of ecosystems in the same way as lack of water," Berntell said.
According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, he said, freshwater ecosystems have degraded more than any other ecosystem, including tropical rainforests.
Several studies indicate that more than 40 percent of fish species and amphibians are threatened with extinction.
Polluted freshwater ends up in the oceans, causing serious damage to many coastal areas and fisheries, thereby constituting a major challenge to ocean and coastal resource management.
Addressing the gathering, Dr Rita Colwell, the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, said that shortcomings in addressing the water quality issue, coupled with climate changes, could lead to disastrous outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as cholera.
This, in turn, is bound to affect economic and national security.
But Carlsson, the Swedish minister, also touted some of the success stories. She said a great deal has happened since World Water Week was launched 20 years ago.
For example, almost two billion more people have access to safe drinking water compared with 20 years ago, and around 1.5 billion more people have access to sanitation.
The provision of safe water has actually outperformed global population growth and given more than eight million people, roughly the population of Sweden, access to safe water every month for 20 years, said Carlsson.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) pointedly says that "running out of water is running out of time".
"We are headed for a water crisis," it warns in a new publication authored by Colin Chartres and Samyuktha Varma, and titled 'Out of Water' released here.
As the global population is forecast to reach nine billion by 2050, water is becoming scarcer around the world as expanding cities, developing countries and new biofuel crops suck water in ever-greater amounts from the world's rivers and lakes, say the authors.
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