Today is World Water Day, when the United Nations draws attention to the importance of freshwater and advocates for sustainable water-resource management. This year, the focus is on water quality, which is declining worldwide.
According to the World Health Organization, each year 3.4 million people – most of them children – die from water-related diseases. That includes 1.4 million children dying from diarrhea annually, and 860,000 children perishing directly or indirectly from malnutrition arising from repeated diarrhea or intestinal nematodes. Many malnourished children do survive, but can suffer lifelong impairment.
Some of the most common neglected tropical diseases, which cause widespread impairment in developing countries, are water-related. Trachoma, which causes eye inflammation and is transmitted as a result of inadequate hygiene, affects more than 80 million people worldwide and has left eight million of them blind. Schistosomiasis, which spreads through water bodies contaminated with infected persons’ feces, causes progressive damage to either the bladder and kidneys or the liver, spleen, and intestines. WHO estimates that 200 million people have this preventable infection.
Because water-related diseases cause such a great reduction in quality of life and productivity, they’re a focus on the UN Millennium Development Goals. Under Goal Seven, “Ensure Environmental Sustainability,” one of the targets is “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” The world has achieved substantial progress toward this goal, but it’s been uneven.
The most recent UN report on MDG progress finds that in 2006 we were ahead of schedule in meeting the 2015 drinking water target, but less than halfway toward the sanitation target. Worldwide, 884 million people still lack access to improved water sources (which include household connections, public standpipes, and protected wells), and 84% of these people are in rural areas.
Sanitation improvements must go hand-in-hand with water improvements, because human waste can contaminate water if not handled properly. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization gives this definition of improved sanitation:
Access to improved sanitation facilities refers to the percentage of the population with at least adequate excreta disposal facilities (private or shared, but not public) that can effectively prevent human, animal, and insect contact with excreta. Improved facilities range from simple but protected pit latrines to flush toilets with a sewerage connection. To be effective, facilities must be correctly constructed and properly maintained.
- connection to a public sewer
- connection to a septic system
- pour-flush latrine
- simple pit latrine
- ventilated improved pit latrine
- service or bucket latrines (where excreta are manually removed)
- shared and public latrines
- latrines with an open pit
Between 1990 and 2006 in the developing world, 1.1 billion people gained access to improved sanitation – but 1.4 billion more still need to gain access by 2015 in order to meet the target. The problem is particularly acute in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where progress has been notable but not equal to the substantial challenge.
While we in the developing world can and should support the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, we also need to think about how our activities are affecting water quality. The World Water Day website has this summary of some of the top concerns:
Water quality can be affected by organic loading (e.g. sewage), pathogens including viruses in waste streams from humans and domesticated animals, agricultural runoff and human wastes loaded with nutrients (e.g. nitrates and phosphates) that give rise to eutrophication and oxygen stress in waterways, salinization from irrigation and water diversions, heavy metals, oil pollution, synthetic and persistent engineered chemicals (e.g. plastics and pesticides), medical drug residues and hormone mimetics and their by-products, radioactive pollution, and even thermal pollution from industrial cooling and reservoir operations.
If you’re interested in learning more about water pollution problems in the US, I recommend the Frontline documentary Poisoned Waters. The World Water Day website also has plenty of suggested reading.
On World Water Day, think about the ways you use water – and how much a clean, adequate supply means to the health of the world.