by Madison Hardee

Studying public health over the last two years, drinking water in the US and in the developing world is a regular topic of conversation.  In my studies, I was surprised to learn that only 1% of the world’s fresh water is available for human use (drinking, sanitation crops, etc.) The rest of the world’s water is salt water (97%) or locked in glaciers (2%).

In the developed world, water is something we rarely think about.  When I am thirsty, I just turn the knob on my sink.  When I want to take a shower, hot water comes out at the pull of a lever.  But for every time I turn on the faucet, there a hundreds of people in the developing world who lack access to clean, running water – something I take so for granted.

Because these developing countries often lack proper sanitation systems, feces enter water sources and consequently, waterborne diseases become prevalent, causing severe morbidity and mortality.  Our world’s limited freshwater supply is a thought which persists in the back of mind, and though I remain disquieted by thoughts of my own privilege as I turn on the faucet, I have begun to further investigate solutions to the water and sanitation issues that face the developing world.

Public health is a field replete with altruism and individuals clamoring to donate free or subsidized goods to the developing world.  Along this line, in the area of water sanitation, many NGOs advocate the distribution of chlorination and flocculation solutions.  I intern for one such organization. 

My non-profit works with PUR Children’s Safe Drinking Water initiative to subsidize the cost of PUR water packets.  I first saw these packets in my orientation and was amazed at the results.  (Watch the demo for yourself.)  After emptying the packet into 10 liters of dirty, contaminated water, dirt particles float to the bottom in an almost magical way.  The packet contains ferrous sulfate (a flocculant) and calcium hypochlorite (which kills the bacteria). 

Developed by Proctor and Gamble, the PUR packet is distributed though a wide variety of implementing organizations.  Its effectiveness in undeniable but its long term use raises other issues.  Do we want to create a dependency of developing countries on foreign aid?  What happens when funds are cut and people who depend on these packets for clean water no longer have access to them? 

The notion behind delivering solutions such as the PUR packet and other forms of man-made water disinfectants is good in its intent, and may well have a place in some acute situations, but other solutions must be investigated for long-term water sustainability.  In one course, we discussed a sand filtration system.  Sand filtration can be used again and again, and presents a solution to the issue of sustainability, however; the contraptions are often heavy to transport and expensive in the short term.  For example, Hydraid makes a bio sand water filter which provides clean water for a family for 10 years; each one weighs 8 pounds and costs $60 USD. 

Thus, there is the conundrum of high price and sustainability versus low price and short-term solutions.  Implementing organizations are incentivized to use the latter, because the results are powerful.  Millions of lives can be saved at very low costs. These powerful results result in high ratings from donor organizations and future grant monies for the implementer.  In our capitalistic country, it is hard to conceive of a group with a financial incentive in providing a high-cost, sustainable water source.  That is not to say that efforts are not being made, but more can and needs to be done. 

It is vital that we evaluate the 1% of available fresh water and look to ways that make that water safe and available around the world. We need to focus not only on water purification but on the root cause of the contamination and the improvement of sanitation systems.  These initiatives are not always the most glamorous but they will do more for the global water crisis than PUR water packets could ever hope for: create sustainability.

For more information on the global safe drinking water crisis, check out a recent video designed by GOOD magazine.

Madison Hardee is a senior at the George Washington University, graduating in May 2009 with a BS in Public Health and a minor in Spanish.  Next year, she is leaving DC for the warmth of New Orleans to pursue a dual degree in law and international development.  Once all her education is over, she hopes to be travelling the
world, working on issues in global health policy.

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