A global crisis: saving our water, saving our children

By Joan Rose

March 22, 2001

Today, the people of the world will use nearly 3 trillion gallons of water. But unlike every other day, today has been declared World Water Day, a World Health Organization initiative that seeks to raise awareness of the increasing need for safe drinking water and to encourage and develop global cooperation to address this challenge.

The world’s water supply is essential to our survival and is one of our most threatened resources. Water is a constant found mostly in the oceans, ice caps, ground water, rivers and lakes. It moves between the earth and the atmosphere in what is known as the hydrologic cycle through evaporation and rainfall, snowfall, runoff and seepage back into the ground. Technically, this supply has remained the same since the first recorded measurements in ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Then, the world’s population was estimated at less than 6 million. Today, the Earth’s population is 6 billion and growing, placing consequential demands on the water available for drinking and agriculture.

Unsafe water is the single greatest health risk faced by the world’s children. Literally hundreds of millions of children are in great danger of disease every time they take a sip of water. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that polluted water contributes to the death of 15 million children under five every year.

Compounding the problem of water scarcity is pollution of freshwater sources and inadequate sanitation systems, particularly in developing countries. The United Nations estimates that, given a 50 percent increase in human population over the next 50 years coupled with expected increases in industrial and economic use of water, half of the world’s future population will not have access to a ready freshwater source.

Experts agree that the world is facing a global water crisis both in terms of water availability and water quality. The implications are significant, including food shortages, increases in instances of waterborne diseases, andconflicts between countries over shared water resources. Although the crisis is more evident in certain parts of the globe, environmental experts preparing for a 1997 world water forum warned, “During the next 50 years, problems associated with a lack of water or the pollution of water bodies will affect virtually everyone on the planet.” And no one will be more affected than our children.

Researchers now indicate that at least 26 countries have more people than their current water supply can adequately support. Visible signs of water shortage can already be seen around the globe. In countries such as the United States, China, and Egypt, major rivers that once flowed freely now fail to reach their end point for extended periods of time. For example, the Colorado River in the western United States, China’s Yellow River, the Nile in Egypt, and the Ganges in South Asia all have been dammed, overtapped or diverted to meet growing agriculture and population demands.

In the United States, water shortages, though most evident in the West, are also becoming critical in states such as Florida.

Seven states currently take a share of the Colorado River: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California. An agreement established in 1922, the Colorado River Compact, designated the amount of water each state could draw from the river and set a minimum flow that was to reach Mexico. Although various amendments have been made to the compact over the years, the allocation remains virtually unchanged, despite the region’s continuing rapid growth. In Florida, like many coastal states, drought conditions, salt water intrusion and a rapidly growing population have severely stressed both ground waters and surface waters. Regional efforts have been needed to address alternative sources (desalination) and sustainability approaches.

More than 1 billion people do not have safe water to drink. According to the WHO, more people around the world suffer from waterborne diseases than any other life-threatening illness. Unprotected watersheds, failing water treatment and poor infrastructure contribute to the problem. The water systems in developing countries are often in poor condition, causing as much as 60 percent of the clean water to leak and remain unused in some areas. Wastewater is rarely treated before disposal, thus leading to increased contamination. This is truly a global problem as even in the United States, estimates suggest that in the next 20 years, $138.4 billion will be needed for infrastructure to protect public health.

With access to the world water supply degrading and diminishing, experts agree that sustainable water policies, global in scope, are necessary to ensure a healthy future. It is a daunting task; international officials estimate that approximately $25 billion per year over eight to 10 years would be required to bring safe water and sanitation to all those who need it. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this challenge; solving the global water crisis requires an individualized, practical and sustainable approach in every affected community with the combined support of governments, public health advocates and private industry.

With a simple turn of the faucet, it is easy for most Americans to take for granted the safety of our water. In the United States, waterborne diseases have been dramatically reduced through a century’s use of filtration and chlorine disinfection. But as the outbreaks of E.coli 0157H7 in New York and Canada demonstrate, we remain vulnerable. New types of microbial contaminants are being identified in water every year associated with a variety of acute and chronic diseases, including ulcers and heart infections. Therefore, continuous due diligence is required when it comes to protection of water.

With one child dying every eight seconds from a water-related disease worldwide, we must redouble our efforts to find long-term and comprehensive solutions. Today, World Water Day, should serve as a reminder that more than 1 billion men, women, and children are still at great risk from unsafe water and as a rallying cry to address this crisis.

Rose is a microbiologist at the College of Marine Science, University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Fla. She also is chair of the Water Quality and Health Council.

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

Subscribe to receive the weekly "Water Quality & Health Council Perspectives"