Dripping taps in rich countries lose more clean water than is available to more than one billion people in the developing world.

As you read this, close to half of all people living in poor countries are suffering from health problems that are related to dirty water and poor sanitation.

Some 1.8 million children die each year because of diarrhoea - a toll six times higher than that of armed conflicts. At the turn of the millennium, the World Commission on Water deplored the “gloomy arithmetic of water,” and warned that half the world’s population would live under conditions of severe water stress by 2025. To counter the global water crisis, the World Bank argues that governments need to build more large dams for reservoirs, in spite of the serious social and environmental impacts that these projects often have.

In a major report on water published last Thursday, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) takes a different approach. The Programme’s 2006 Human Development Report rejects the gloomy arithmetic. It argues that the poor’s lack of water is caused by their lack of political power, rather than by the limits of nature. “The scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis,” the UNDP maintains, “is rooted in power, poverty, and equality, not in physical availability.” More investment in water supply is urgently needed. Yet storing water in large, centralised reservoirs concentrates political power. The benefits of big, capital-intensive water investments tend to be captured by the rich and the powerful.

The UNDP’s new report joins a growing chorus of voices that argue for a “soft path” to water-sector development. Decentralised, small-scale solutions are more likely to reach the poor than centralised reservoirs. According to the UN Millennium Project, the more than 500 million small farming families are the world’s “epicentre of extreme poverty.” Most of these farmers work marginal, rain-fed lands. They are more likely to benefit from modest investments in decentralised water storage and supply than from billions sunk into large dams.

A soft path will rely both on new technologies and traditional methods of storing water. Indian farmers have built small dams to store water and recharge groundwater aquifers. The Human Development Report estimates that with an initial investment of $7 billion, extending

such structures across India could raise the value of the country’s monsoon crop from $36 to $180 billion a year. Another soft tool that can overcome water scarcity at very low cost is drip irrigation. Drip irrigation brings water to plants’ roots rather than the furrows, cuts water use by 30-60 per cent, and boosts yields by up to 50 per cent.

The soft path supplies water

without destroying rivers or exhausting supplies. It also creates jobs and gives the poor the means to buy the food they produce. The soft path proposed by the UNDP can break the vicious cycle where poor people lack access to both water and power. — The Christian Science Monitor