March 21, 2010

World Water Day.

March 22 is World Water Day, designated by the UN in 1993 to highlight the critical lack of safe, clean, easily accessible drinking water worldwide. Perhaps not yet a huge concern to those of us lucky enough to inhabit a part of the world where "designer" bottled water with no health benefits whatsoever abounds. But it's a different story in the rest of the world, where entire societies live with acute public health threats because their inhabitants are at times forced to drink water from drains.

Not that the problem is confined to a particular region of the world — overpopulation, misuse, and pollution are rapidly turning scarcity of water into a problem for all of us. The availability of drinking water is inadequate and shrinking, poising access to water as the next great source of global conflict. In 2001, the first UN World Water Development Report indicated that the quantity of water available to everyone would decrease 30% by 2020. With over 70% of the world's freshwater used in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production, more than trendy water bottles and swimming pools are at stake.

Water is a fundamental requirement for all known organisms on our planet; plants, fungi, micro-organisms, and animals (which mean us, humans) need it to stay alive. According the World Health Organization, each human being requires at least 20 litres of fresh water every day. Yet some 900 million people (almost 13% of the world's population) lack access to safe drinking water. Lack of clean water - essential to the treatment of diseases - coupled with lack of basic sanitation and hygiene education, is one of the largest obstacles to global progress and development.

Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from waterborne diseases. In much of the so called "developing" world, 90% of all wastewater enters local rivers and streams untreated, leaving over 2.6 billion people (almost 40% of the world's population) without access to adequate sanitation. All while a single flush of a toilet in the "developed" world consumes as much water as one person in a "developing" country uses to drink, wash, cook, and clean in one day.

Waterborne diseases are the world's leading cause of death, killing 6.000 people every day, two-thirds of them children. In a world of unprecedented wealth, a child dies roughly every twenty seconds from a disease that could've been prevented by something as basic, and comparatively inexpensive, as proper sanitation. Out of the 2.2 million deaths in 2004 caused by unsafe drinking water (4.1% of the total global disease burden), 90% were children under the age of five.

An estimated 443 million school days are lost each year because waterborne diseases keep children out of school, or affect their ability to learn when they attend. Poor health resulting from inadequate water and sanitation doesn't merely rob children of an education, but also impacts the earning power of adults. The costs associated with disease and productivity losses caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation amounts to 5% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa alone – more than that region receives in aid.

Women and girls are particularly affected, as they are usually the ones responsible for collecting enough water for drinking, cooking, and basic hygiene. The daily chore of hauling heavy water containers from a distant source, further prevents women and children from pursuing an education or earning additional income. Some 40 billion hours are expended annually hauling water around – on average for three hours each day – equalling over 19 million full-time employees.

As water isn't a finite resource the actual amount that exists on Earth isn't the problem, but rather its distribution for drinking, sanitation, irrigation, industry, and energy generation. Since 1990, 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe sources of water, with the proportion of people in the "developing" world with access to safe water increasing from 30% in 1970 to 71% in 1990, 79% in 2000 and 84% in 2004. If this trend continues, the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 will likely be achieved in most regions (except Sub-Saharan Africa).

Because of the suffering, increased poverty, high child mortality rates, low levels of education, and political instability that lack of safe water sources contributes to, the urgency cannot be overstated. Even if the 2015 goal is achieved, almost 900 million people will still be left without water, while over 76 million people will have perished from waterborne diseases by 2020. Unless major changes occur, waterborne diseases could by then have killed as many people as the AIDS pandemic. In 2006, a UN report stated that "there is enough water for everyone" but access to it is hampered by incompetence and corruption.

Add to that the attempts to privatise water resources and companies by the unwashed neoliberal bastards at the IMF and the World Bank. Currently, more than 90% of the world’s water and sanitation systems are publicly owned and operated, with a mere 9% (or the services of roughly 545 million people in 2004) being operated privately. But the 142% increase in profit that followed the 1989 water privatisation in England and Wales has wet the appetite of the world's most short-sighted and unconscionable "business people", who have no scruples about giant multinational corporations controlling the necessities of life.

They conveniently ignore how in the England and Wales example, profits were valued over service, expensive centralised projects were undertaken at the expense and exclusion of smaller, decentralised projects (like wells, or rain water collection), tariffs were increased by 46% in the years that followed, and that quality and supply declined while much of the infrastructure was left to decay. As long as they can place a pricetag on every single object in the known universe, nothing else matters.

So, participate in events this coming World Water Day, take some time to consider where that stuff pouring out of your tap – or your fresh and trendy bottle – originates, how much you pay for it and to whom, and how you use your share of our water.

Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on March 20, 2009.

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