More than one billion people (1 in 6) do not have access to adequate clean fresh water – which is defined as just 20 to 50 liters per day. In contrast, the average American can use in excess of 400 liters per day indoors. More than 2.5 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation facilities. Without sanitation, human and animal wastes reach drinking water supplies and illness proliferate. Diarrhea, caused by water-born pathogens, is the leading cause of illness and death in the world. And most of its victims are children under 5 years old.
Today is World Water Day, an annual recognition of the importance of freshwater and an opportunity for focusing attention on advocating for its sustainable management. World Water Day is organized by the UN Environmental Program. Each year has a particular theme, and in 2010 the theme is “Clean Water for a Healthy World.”
The all-around excellent Pulitzer Gateway “Downstream”is focused on water conflict and cooperation, water and economics, water and health, and water and climate. Of particular relevance for this World Water Day is the section on water and health, where I found the video and written account of women in Kakuma daily digging a dry riverbed for water because they couldn’t afford the 5 cents per jerry can fee for the clean, pumped water supplied by aid organizations and the local government.
(One thing you might notice if you watch some of these videos is that it is women and girls who are disproportionately affected by lack of access to clean water. Women are the ones who have to walk miles to fill jugs with water and girls drop out of school in order to do so. Improving access to water would give these women and girls additional opportunities to contribute to their own and their families’ economic well-being.)
In 2000, the UN set out its Millenium Development Goals, one of which is “By 2015, reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.” With five years to go, we’re making some progress toward the drinking water goal (only 900 million more people to go) but the number of people without access to adequate sanitation is actually increasing. There are many organizations working to install wells and establish clean water supplies. There are also organizations working to develop and distribute affordable water purification technologies, some even using entrepreneurial solutions. Just as importantly, there are groups working to improve sanitation conditions. We need to break the taboo on sanitation and recognize it to be a necessary ingredient to preserving clean water resources. Unfortunately, all of these well-meaning organizations face significant limitations because of cost, political instability, cultural taboos, hydrogeology, and climate.
No matter how much scientific geek-love I may have for streams and groundwater, mostly I live a water-rich life and can take water for granted. Yet, in other parts of the world, access to clean water is literally a matter of life or death. I’m glad for this year’s reminder of how fortunate I am, how far the world needs to go to meet basic human needs, and how many of the solutions are within our grasp, if concerted, adequately-funded efforts are made. Simply put, global health depends on access to adequate clean water and sanitation. It’s time to move water higher on our collective to-do list.
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