Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers around the world write about an important global topic. This year, the focus is on water.
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. Other water-related diseases, like trachoma and schistosomiasis, cause disfigurement and disabilities that harm people’s economic participation and quality of life.
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.
When considering whether drinking water is safe, the WHO defines it this way:
Access to safe drinking water is the proportion of people using improved drinking water sources: household connection; public standpipe; borehole; protected dug well; protected spring; rainwater.
Earlier this year, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) reported that in 1990, 77% of the world’s population got drinking water from an improved source, and in 2008 that figure had risen to 87%. That progress puts us well within reach of the MDG target for water — 88.5% by 2015, by my calculation — but it still leaves a large swath of the global population without access to safe drinking water. According to the JMP, 884 million people still get their water from unimproved sources (which include rivers and ponds, unprotected wells, and water sold in bottles or from tanker trucks). More than one-third of those still lacking access to improved water sources live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As I wrote last month’s post about the Millennium Development Goals, improving gender equality can have a strong multiplier effective and enhance several other MDGs. (Sharon Astyk of Casaubon’s Book posted a response to the post that’s well worth reading.) In the case of water, inadequate water supplies can also hamper efforts to achieve gender parity in education. In areas where people have to walk long distances to collect water, it’s usually women and girls who make the daily treks – and when girls are spending hours hauling water, that’s time they can’t spend in school.
So, while water quality is one of the important considerations, it’s not the only one. The MDG also addresses people’s access to water, and WHO puts numbers on that:
Access to drinking water means that the source is less than 1 kilometer away from its place of use and that it is possible to reliably obtain at least 20 litres per member of a household per day.
A kilometer is equal to slightly more than half a mile, and 20 litres is about 5.3 gallons. To put that into context, EPA reports that the average US family of four can use 400 gallons of water each day.
Sanitation improvements must go hand-in-hand with water improvements, because human waste can contaminate water if not handled properly. (See this post on sanitation for details.)
An “improved” sanitation facility is defined as “adequate excreta disposal facilities (private or shared, but not public) that can effectively prevent human, animal, and insect contact with excreta.” Toilets connected to public sewer systems or septic systems qualify, as do many latrines. Latrines that use an open pit or require manual removal of excreta don’t qualify, nor do public latrines, because they are rarely maintained adequately and may not be accessible at all times.
In 1990, only 54% of the world’s population used improved sanitation facilities; the MDG target aims to bring that number up to 77% by 2015. In 2008, however, that number had only reached 61%. The increase represents 1.3 billion people who gained access to improved sanitation facilities between 1990 and 2008, but the JMP estimates that we’ll still end up missing the target by one billion people.
Ensuring sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation for the world’s population will be especially challenging because water quality worldwide is declining and climate change is disrupting rainfall and glacial melting patterns.
Those of us fortunate enough to have more-than-adequate access to water and sanitation facilities should remember not to take these for granted, and think about how we can reduce our use of the world’s finite freshwater supply. National Geographic has a nice list of water conservation tips, and you can find links to many more resources and water-related blog posts at the Blog Action Day website.