Every year more than 5 million people, most of them babies and small children, die of preventable illnesses caused by contaminated drinking water. Crops die without adequate irrigation; fisheries become depleted from eutrophication, pollution and acidification; biodiversity declines. All of these factors lead to suffering, economic uncertainty and social instability. Yet, to date, there are no significant international agreements governing the quality and availability of water, and more than a billion people continue to live in areas which lack clean drinking water or basic sanitation.
With World Water Day
just behind us, the question being asked is: Why is clean water so hard to come by?
In the developing world, many areas lack the infrastructure to acquire, treat and transport water. This leaves billions of people to depend on polluted rivers and lakes for their drinking, cooking and bathing needs. The lack of sanitation facilities furthers the problem by adding high loads of organic waste, industrial pollution and agricultural run-off into these same waterways. According to the U.N. Secretary General's Millennium Report, released in 2000, "No single measure would do more to reduce disease and save lives in the developing world than bringing safe water and adequate sanitation to all."
And the problem is not limited to the developing world. While we take for granted our ability to turn on the tap, America and other industrialized nations also face contamination from sewage, pharmaceutical byproducts and heavy metals.
But drinking water is just one part of the equation. Without healthy watersheds, rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans, we lose biodiversity, we lose important food sources, and we lose jobs. The collapse of many natural fisheries can be linked not only to over-fishing, but also to changes in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the environment. The problem is compounded by rising carbon dioxide concentrations which lead to ocean acidification, and by the influx of organic waste which can lead to oxygen depletion, both of which are disastrous for the aquatic food chain.
How, then, do we go about improving water conditions? The solution is not simple, nor is it quick. One step in the right direction comes from the United Nations, which has implemented a series of programs designed to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage practical solutions in the areas most affected. In addition to specific scientific and humanitarian projects, this effort includes the international World Water Day campaign and the publication of key monitoring data.
World Water Day, which this year fell on March 22, is an invitation to learn more about the water issues we all face. Visit the UN's water website
to learn more, to download templates for your own Water Day T-shirt
, or to find out ways you can help.
Looking for hard facts? Visit the website of Gemstat
, the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS). Here you can track changes in the health of water systems and communities across the globe.
For those of us lucky enough to have clean water on a daily basis, the issue may not seem urgent. But ask yourself this: How long could you last if your tap were shut off? Where would you go to get fresh water? The average person requires between 20 and 40 liters of water per day to remain safe and healthy. Where will you get that and how far will you have to travel? These are questions faced by more than a billion souls every day, and even more in times of crisis. Earthquakes and storms are only a few of the threats to our water supply. Take a moment to think it over. Be prepared. And as you work to ensure your own supply of fresh water, remember those who routinely go without this one essential resource.
2. GEMS (Map)
4. UNEP (Fact sheet)