Environment: The Last Drops

Population growth and development have depleted and polluted the world's water supply, raising the risk of starvation, epidemics and even wars

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Swaminathan Asokan dreams of water. It gushes out of a giant tap and fills bucket after bucket. But then he wakes up -- to a nightmare. For at Asokan's house in Madras, India's fourth largest city, there is no water. The tap has long been dry. So he must get up in the dark of night and, laden with plastic pails, take a five-minute walk down the street to a public tap. Since the water flows only between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., Asokan, 34, a white-collar worker at a finance company, tries to be there by 3:30 a.m. to get a good place in line. His reward: five buckets that must last the entire day.

Compared with many of his countrymen, Asokan is fortunate. At least 8,000 Indian villages have no local water supply at all. Their residents must hike long distances to the nearest well or river. In many parts of the country, water is contaminated by sewage and industrial waste, exposing those who drink it to disease.

The sad state of India's water supply is just one sign of what could become a global disaster. From the slums of Mexico to the overburdened farms of China, human populations are outstripping the limited stock of fresh water. Mankind is poisoning and exhausting the precious fluid that sustains all life.

In the Soviet Union, the mismanagement of land around the Aral Sea has cut it off from its sources of water, causing the volume of the once giant lake to shrink by two-thirds in 30 years. Now storms of salt and pesticides swirl up from the receding shoreline, contaminating the land and afflicting millions of Uzbeks with gastritis, typhoid and throat cancer. In Beijing, one-third of the city's wells have gone dry, and the water table drops by as much as 2 meters (2.2 yards) a year. In the Western U.S., four years of drought have left municipalities and agricultural interests tussling over diminishing water stocks. Says Ivan Restrepo, head of the Center for Ecodevelopment in Mexico, where as many as 30 million people do not have safe drinking water: "We've been enduring a crisis for several years now, but it is in this decade that it will explode."

) Camouflaged by its very familiarity, the water problem has crept up on a world distracted by fears of global warming and other emergent environmental threats. Yet water could be the first resource that puts a limit on human population and economic growth. Shortfalls of water will mean shortfalls of food, since up to three-quarters of the fresh water that humanity uses goes for agriculture. Moreover, contaminated drinking water in heavily populated areas endangers the health of hundreds of millions of people. According to the United Nations, 40,000 children die every day, many of them the victims of the water crisis.

At the moment, countries are poised to go to war over oil, but in the near future, water could be the catalyst for armed conflict. Israel and Jordan, Egypt and Ethiopia, and India and Bangladesh are but a few of the neighboring nations at odds over rivers and lakes. Warns Arnon Sofer, professor of geography at Israel's Haifa University: "Wars over water might erupt in the Middle East in the '90s when states try to control each other's supplies."

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