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Alex Steffen, 25 Mar 04

Getting people water -- basic old fresh water -- has becoming one of the looming challenges of the next few decades, a point made quite wonderfully by the recent photography show, Drops of Life.

But are we investing enough energy in researching possible solutions? The answer, says David Dickson, is quite clearly, no.

"Few issues exemplify more dramatically the gap between the potential of modern science and technology to meet the needs of the developing world, and the failure to fully realise that potential, than the lack of a clean and safe supply of water. In most of the developed world, the constant availability of clean water is virtually taken for granted (even if its purity is sometimes questioned). In the developing world it is the reverse; it is estimated, for example, that more than 1 billion people — about one sixth of the world's population — do not have access to safe drinking water, and figures published this week in the run-up to the Fourth World Water Forum, taking place in Mexico City, suggest that this number could quadruple by 2025. ...

"The [International Foundation for Science] has indicated its desire to tackle this problem, in particular by supporting young scientists to conduct state-of-the-art research while effectively building on local knowledge, local institutions, and local solutions for better water management. It has also identified a total of nine targeted research fields in three areas: water for livelihood (which includes safe drinking water, sustainable sanitation, pollution abatement, and water treatment); water for agriculture (covering rain-fed agriculture and rainfall harvesting, the use of low-quality irrigation water, and micro-irrigation technologies); and finally, the social and economic dimension (sustainable management of water resources and gender perspective on water).

"Many organisations around the world, of course, are already engaged in work in this area, reflecting the fact firstly that the research needs are enormous, and secondly that there may be more than one approach to any particular problem. Some have adopted other priorities to those listed by the IFS. But it is clear that a broad-based strategy is needed. Furthermore, water management is one area where there is an obvious need to combine the best of what modern science has to offer with the insights and experience embedded in traditional knowledge systems (such as rain harvesting in the mountains of Latin America)."

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