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5 Billion People Could Have Poor Access to Water by 2050, UN Warns

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As the world's population grows and the planet warms, demand for water will rise but the quality and reliability of the supply is expected to deteriorate, the United Nations said Monday in this year's World Water Development Report.

"We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change," said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a statement. "If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050."


According to the report, presented Monday at the 8th World Water Forum in Brazil, global water use has increased by a factor of six in the past 100 years and has been increasing about 1 percent per year due to population growth.

Today, an estimated 3.6 billion people—nearly half the global population—already live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and could increase to some 4.8 to 5.7 billion by 2050. The growing demand for water will mostly occur in countries with developing or emerging economies. Agriculture will remain the biggest water user, although industrial and domestic demand will put an increasing strain on water supplies.

The 2018 UN World Water Development Report

Additionally, the report warns that climate change is causing drier regions to become even drier.

"The population currently affected by land degradation/desertification and drought is estimated at 1.8 billion people, making this the most significant category of 'natural disaster' based on mortality and socio-economic impact relative to gross domestic product (GDP) per capita," it says.

Global water quality is also at risk from chemical pollution and nutrient loading, which, depending on the region, is often associated with pathogen loading, the report notes. Low- and lower-middle income countries have the greatest exposure risk to contaminated water partly due to a lack of wastewater management systems.

While the predictions sound grim, the report proposes nature-based solutions (NBS) to better manage global freshwater supplies. It recommends more investment in protecting ecosystems that recycle water, such as wetlands and vegetation, and spending less on concrete flood barriers or wastewater treatment plants.

"Green infrastructure" can help reduce pressures on land use, all while limiting pollution, soil erosion and water requirements, the report says. Agricultural production could be increased by an estimated 20 percent worldwide if greener water management practices were used, it found.

Green solutions, from vegetated walls and rooftop gardens, also have great potential to capture and filter water in urban areas. Other measures of recycling and harvesting water include water retention hollows to recharge groundwater, and the protection of watersheds that supply urban areas. New York City, for instance, has protected its three biggest watersheds since the late 1990s, bringing savings of more than $300 million per year on water treatment and maintenance costs, the report highlights.

The 2018 UN World Water Development Report

"For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or 'grey,' infrastructure to improve water management. In so doing, it has often brushed aside traditional and Indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches," wrote Gilbert Houngbo, chair of UN-Water and president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in the report's foreword.

"It is time for us to re-examine nature-based solutions (NBS) to help achieve water management objectives," he added.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.