GENEVA (Reuters) - Delicate wetlands, coasts and wildlife sanctuaries could be ravaged as part of a struggle to stretch the world's water supplies, with the worst damage foreseen in poor countries.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said precious ecosystems like the Okavango Delta in Botswana -- the planet's largest inland delta, which hosts a diversity of fish, game and birds -- may be targeted as a fresh water source if scarcity becomes acute.
"Botswana itself is a water-stressed country. The pressure to extract water that would otherwise maintain that ecological paradise will be immense," he told Reuters in a telephone interview from UNEP's headquarters in Nairobi.
Water basins in Africa's Sahel region, especially Lake Chad, could also be regarded as easy-to-access sources of fresh water if crippling droughts continue to grip countries like Chad, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, Steiner said.
"There will be difficult choices to make," he said.
One billion people, about a sixth of humanity, now lacks access to safe drinking water, and one in three lives in regions plagued by water scarcity, according to U.N. data.
Steiner said human water consumption could jump another 40 percent over the next 20 years as the global population grows and more affluent societies demand more supplies for drinking, bathing, irrigation, energy generation and manufacturing.
Droughts, which scientists forecast will become more frequent and severe in some already-arid areas as a result of climate change, could further strain existing resources and heap pressure on governments to secure enough water.
Wolfgang Grabs, who heads the water division of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), said countries that cannot afford to upgrade their water procurement systems would be most prone to hasty decisions in water management.
"They will have to ask: 'Do I ensure agricultural production for food security and water supply, or do I protect the environment?'," he said from the U.N. weather agency's Geneva headquarters.
"The immediate consequence, if the environment is affected, is that the number of living species will be diminished in wetland, river and lake areas," he added.
Animal life can also suffer seriously from water scarcity pressures, as seen in the widespread livestock deaths in Chad, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia during droughts earlier this year.
Freshwater fisheries will also be affected by any disruption to the world's waterways, Grabs said, pointing to Latin America's giant Pantanal wetlands as another ecologically rich area that could be targeted in coming years.
Reduced freshwater flows can also cause an increase in salination in coastal areas as salty seawater encroaches ON lands depended upon by many for agriculture, he added.
Steiner, a former World Conservation Union chief, said the drying out of the Aral Sea during the Soviet era showed how devastating bad water management can be.
"Once you affect certain elements of the hydrological cycle, that can destroy the basis on which the whole biodiversity of an area is premised," he said.
"There simply is no life where there is no water."
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