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A Meeting Of Thirsty Nations

Ministers from around the world will meet in the Hague on March 21 and 22 to help defuse dangerous frictions between thirsty nations jousting for water supplies. John Howard reports.

As populations soar in developing countries while their environment deteriorates, Ministers will be asked to endorse the idea of an international mediator to help with cross-border water disputes.

In 1998, the OECD said water will be the largest tradeable commodity in the 21st century and its shortage could be the source of wars.

In 1995, Ismail Serageldin vice-president of the World Bank made an ominous prediction: "Many of the wars of this century were about oil - but the wars of the next century will be about water."

Worldwide, around 214 rivers flow through two or more countries, but no enforceable law governs the use and allocation of water.

According to the World Commission on Water, a 20 per cent increase in fresh water will be needed by 2025, when the world's population of six billion people is expected to have increased by three billion.

The Middle-East is expected to be the biggest flashpoint, a region that is predominately desert in climate, has a huge rate of population growth, shrinking aquifers and a seething tradition of conflict.

Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria all draw water from the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, while Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank are heavily dependent on the Yargon/Tanninim aquifer and two others which lie under most of the areas' disputed settlements.

In Gaza, the groundwater level is said to be sinking 15 to 20 centimeters a year, while its quality deteriorates.

In Turkey, the massive Anatolian dam system wil have a major inmapct on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers with consequences downstream for Syria and Iraq.

In Asia, the Ganges is crucial to India's one billion population and that of Bangladesh, while five countries in central Asia share two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.

Those rivers feed the Aral Sea, which has lost half its area and three-quarters of its volume due to excessive river diversions for cotton production.

In Indochina, tension is rising along the Mekong, where dam projects in China and Laos and water diversions in Thailand are affecting flows, to the detriment of Cambodia and Vietnam. Salt water intrusions are also a serious problem in the Mekong Delta.

Around 60 million people depend on the basin below the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

Africa has 19 of the 25 countries in the world with the highest percentage of populations without access to safe drinking water.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are among eight thirsty countries drawing water from the Nile. It is forecast that this year alone, up to eight million Ethiopians will suffer hunger and starvation because of drought.

New Zealand cities like Auckland, with a projected growth rate of 5 per cent, cannot be sustainable if they need to encroach on other regions to access water.

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