Chances are, if you are reading this you have the convenience of turning on a faucet and having a glass of water to drink. You have a toilet that flushes away waste, and you may even have a hose or sprinkler system to quench the thirst of a garden. Those of us living in developed countries have the luxury of potable water, yet more than 1 billion people in low- and middle-income countries lack access to safe water for drinking, personal hygiene and domestic use. Water scarcity is a dire situation, but there is hope.
Twenty percent of the world’s population lacks reasonable access to adequate and safe water, in sub-Saharan Africa that number is 42 percent. And consider this one statistic, of many: 1.8 million people (90 percent under the age of 5) die every year from diarrhoeal diseases, 88 percent of which is attributed to unsafe water supply.
Most water-related diseases are due to the way water resources are developed and managed. In many parts of the world the adverse health impacts of water pollution, dam construction, irrigation development and flood control cause significant preventable disease. Water covers more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface—that’s about 332,500,000 cubic miles of water! But 96 percent of that is saline, leaving only a small portion of that to sustain socio-economic development and to sustain the planet’s ecosystems that depend on fresh water.
As our population grows, the need for more groundwater and surface water intensifies. This leads to tension, conflict and excessive stress to the environment. The increasing need for freshwater resources from increasing demand and waste, as well as by growing pollution, is of serious concern. According to the World Health Organization, water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions due to water issues.
Given these facts, it seems obvious that the world’s water supply needs some help. Although the problem has been increasing steadily for decades, it wasn’t until the Dublin Conference on Water and the Environment in 1992 and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that the major international organizations began to address a more comprehensive approach to water management for sustainable development.
In 2003, The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the years 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action “Water for Life.” The goal of this campaign is to fulfill international commitments to water issues by the year 2015. Among those commitments are the Millennium Development Goals—goal number seven (of eight) includes the reduction by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015 and to stop unsustainable exploitation of water resources. At the World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002, two other goals were adopted: Aim to develop integrated water resource management and water efficiency plans by 2005 and to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation. These international efforts have galvanized tremendous efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.
So, what can we do to help? We are so privileged to have access to fresh water, and quite frankly, many take it for granted. Think of all the fresh water used to fill swimming pools in the US, and consider that we take all that fresh water and make it undrinkable with the addition of chlorine and other chemicals. Meanwhile, in many places women and girls are charged with the responsibility of spending their entire day seeking out meager amounts of water for their families. Put it this way, while the average American individual uses between 100 and 176 gallons each day, the average African family uses only 5 gallons.
Our first step might simply be to love our water. Recognize it for the luxury it is. Protect our groundwater by using care not to dispose of toxic materials down the drain, and conserve water everywhere that you can. Familiarize yourself with some of the international water initiatives, and make a donation of time or money to them. And most importantly, simply treat this valuable resource with the respect it deserves.