STOCKHOLM, Aug 22 (IPS) - A spectre is haunting the cities and villages of most developing nations, warns a senior official of a World Bank-affiliated organisation.
"It's the spectre of a food, fuel and water crisis," says Lars Thunell, executive vice president of the Washington-based International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank group.
"I believe we are at a tipping point," he said, because the scarcity of water poses a threat to the food supply just when the agricultural sector is stepping up production in response to riots over food prices, growing hunger, and rising malnutrition.
Speaking at the conclusion of the weeklong Stockholm International Water Conference Friday, Thunell said the growing demand for water is outpacing supply.
The world's current population of over 6.0 billion is expected to rise to about 9.0 billion by 2050, with more than 60 percent living in mega cities.
"Since water consumption goes up where there is development and improved lifestyles, we can expect even greater demands on fresh water," Thunell said.
The most water-intensive sector, agriculture, is expanding and industrialisation and energy production are further driving demand, he added.
The conference, which was attended by over 2,400 water experts and government officials, ended with an ominous warning: that water and sanitation are not far behind the food, energy and climate crises.
Summing up the weeklong proceedings, the Stockholm International Water Institute said that slow progress on sanitation will cause the world to badly fail the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, weak policy, poor management, increasing waste and exploding water demands will push the planet towards the tipping point of a global water crisis.
According to U.N. estimates a little less than one billion people worldwide still don't have access to clean drinking water while over 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation.
The MDGs aim at a 50 percent reduction both in the number of people without drinking water and without basic sanitation. The deadline has been set at 2015. But most of the world's poorer nations are likely to miss the deadline.
Colin Chartres, director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said the causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis.
"There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate that water supplies are close to exhaustion in some countries," he said.
He pointed out that current estimates indicate the world will not have enough water to feed itself in 40 years time, "by when the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis."
Chartres said he and his water science colleagues have raised a warning flag that significant investments in both research and development and water infrastructure development are needed, "if dire consequences are to be avoided."
IFC's Thunell said providing clean water and sanitation services are not only business opportunities but also opportunities to improve lives. He said investors see an opportunity in the 450-billion-dollar global water sector, where stocks are performing strongly worldwide.
Private firms also regard water supply as a business risk and are tackling it as an integral part of their risk-management strategy.
"I believe the moment is right," Thunell said. "We can avert a crisis -- as partners, working together."
He said IFC will do its part by investing in companies that pursue opportunities in water conservation and quality, and by fostering public-private partnerships in the water sector.
But Patti Lynn, campaigns director of Corporate Accountability International, has a different take on the role of the private sector.
"The crisis stems from a confluence of problems, but perhaps no contributing factor is more insidious and correctable than the privatisation of the resource," she told IPS. "When people's access to clean drinking water is reliant on the profit interests of a handful of transnationals, all of us pay a premium and because of this many of the world's poor go thirsty."
Asked if the international community will meet the MDGs relating to water and sanitation by 2015, she said: "Not if we don't change immediate course."
For one, she said, the World Bank needs to stop making water privatisation a condition for their loans.
"If the Bank is truly interested in alleviating poverty, its conditions should take a longer view," she said.
Keeping water under local, public and democratic control is the most just way to insure the greatest degree of water access for the greatest number of people, Lynn added.