The world faces serious water shortages, yet the crisis is often overlooked because it seems so mundane. It is an urgent problem that must be tackled just as aggressively as other grave crises that threaten the future of humanity. The World Water Forum, which will meet in Japan for eight days from today, has its work cut out.

The “water crisis” stems from the fact that much of Earth is covered with seawater, with the absolute amount of fresh water available to humans limited. Moreover, the shortages are grossly uneven, with some regions frequently hit by droughts and others by floods. Contributing to this is global warming, which is attributed to massive greenhouse-gas emissions from the industrial world.

The rapid growth of the world’s population makes it critically important to secure adequate water supplies. Even now, chronic shortages of drinking water plague more than a billion people in developing countries. Yet the crisis has received less attention than other basic environmental problems, such as air and water pollution and soil erosion.

The third WWF session, to be held in Kyoto, Osaka and Shiga, is expected to be attended by nearly 10,000 delegates from about 180 countries. The first session was held in Morocco in 1997 and the second in the Netherlands in 2000. It is hoped that this conference will map out an effective plan of action to resolve the water problem.

The water crisis may not strike a chord in ordinary people here, because Japan, a land of abundant rainfall, does not suffer chronic water shortages. Residents in almost all parts of the country have access to clean tap water, though water supply in heavily populated urban areas is often restricted during the dry season. Farmers, unlike those in prewar years, have little or no difficulty securing irrigation water. But our massive water consumption is something that should be seriously considered in relation to the global shortage.

According to the World Health Organization, about 1.2 billion people around the world, most of them in developing countries, do not have access to potable water, and 2.4 billion people do not have flush toilets. The lack of sanitation, says the U.N. agency, spreads diarrhea and infectious diseases among children, causing millions to die.

Although a water-rich country, Japan is a large importer of mineral water. Furthermore, the processing of grains and meat imported by Japan requires vast quantities of water — about the same amount that is being used by 1.3 billion people in developing countries. Thus Japanese consumers depend in no small measure on the use of overseas water resources.

The third WWF session is a good opportunity for the international community to take concrete action to resolve the water crisis. Water was a major subject of discussion at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held last summer in Johannesburg, South Africa. The debate produced a major commitment to reduce by half the number of people who lack access to safe drinking water, now numbering 1.2 billion, by 2015.

The question, of course, is how to achieve this target. It will not be easy given the highly regional characteristics of the water problem. For instance, half the world’s population lives along the tributaries of international rivers, and there are numerous disputes involving water rights. In comparison, emission targets for greenhouse gases may be easier to address because their necessity is more widely recognized.

One way to deal with the water crisis would be to enlist the cooperation of multinational companies engaged in water projects. In view of water’s public nature, however, there are limits to the application of market principles.

Supplying safe water to needy people around the globe requires huge investments, effective management and mechanisms to settle disputes. It is desirable, therefore, to create an international support system combining public funding and private investment.

Significantly, the forum will be held in areas along tributaries of Lake Biwa and the Yodo River — areas that have a long history of flood control and water utilization. In particular, the traditional methods of rice-paddy irrigation that have been used there over the centuries may provide informative examples of how effectively water can be used.

The fact that the WWF forum consists of some 350 subcommittees attests to the diversity of the water problem. The hope is that the meeting will produce substantial results, and that the concluding ministerial session will issue a material statement setting out action plans to tackle both regional and global problems. As the host nation, Japan must play the leading role.

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