Dr. Reba Goodman
More people in the world have cell phones than access to a toilet. Unlike wars and natural disasters, inadequate water and sanitation conditions do not make media headlines. Yet, such conditions exist despite statistical evidence demonstrating that poor water and sanitation conditions claim more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. Lack of clean water and sanitation is a "silent disaster" with major health consequences. Up to 75% of all diseases in the third world are directly related to inadequate water and sanitation conditions.
To address this disaster, in 2000 world leaders at a UN summit meeting signed a Millennium declaration that set forth eight goals to be achieved by 2015. Today in 2012, the goals for reducing extreme poverty and the number of people without access to clean water by half have actually been met. However, 780 million people are still without adequate water.
Concerted efforts have shown that such conditions can be improved. Even in very poor countries there is evidence of some success; e.g. in Malawi more than 7 million people, about half of its population, have now gained access to potable drinking water. Similar results are seen in Burkina Faso and Gambia. In 2010, the UN General Assembly declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a fundamental human right and UNICEF developed an active program called WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene)
Unsurprisingly, women are more affected than men in areas where water and sanitation resources are inadequate. In most societies women and girls bear the prime responsibility for collecting water for the entire family, as well as for managing household and human waste. Although women now have considerable knowledge concerning the need for clean water and sanitation, they are frequently excluded from planning and decision making Furthermore, girls often spend hours collecting water which prevents them from going to school.
Approximately 97% of the water on this planet is in the ocean and not drinkable because of its salt content (to address the salt issue, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a massive desalination program underway, however, it is expensive and uses much energy). Most of the remainder is locked in Antarctic ice caps or deep underground leaving less than 1% available for human use in freshwater lakes and rivers. Water is mostly a renewable resource, and globally there can be enough to go around for drinking, sanitation, and agriculture (which uses most of it). Access to clean water is often one of storage, poor management, and dumping of waste in rivers. Thus, the problem is that some countries get a lot more than other countries.
People living in rich countries are only dimly aware of how clean water and sanitation have fostered progress in their own country. Just over a hundred years ago London, New York and Paris were centers of infectious diseases and the death rate, especially of children, was high. The movement for sanitary improvement and its sweeping reforms has led to the assignment of adequate funds for building and maintaining sewage systems as well as the infrastructure for clean water. The development of water purification led to a great reduction in mortality in the US in the first third of the 20th century. By one estimate, in England in the decades since 1880, the improvement and expansion of sanitation has led to an unprecedented 15 year increase in life expectancy.
Water resources often cross political boundaries in the form of rivers, lakes and aquifers. This hydrological interdependence raises issues of conflict and cooperation. Conflicts do arise but often are resolved peaceably. For example, during two wars between India and Pakistan, a treaty on water sharing survived. Another example is water cooperation between Israel and Jordan, under UN auspices in the early 1950s when the countries were still at war. These and other examples demonstrate that enemies often cooperate on interests in water. It is hoped that such cooperation between countries will occur in future cases of interdependence.
The right to water and sanitation is vital to life. In the past 20 years governments have tried to hand over the responsibility for clean water and sanitation to the private sector. The hope was that multinational corporations have the expertise and the financial resources. It is well known that private corporations exist to make profit and the poor are often unable to pay the high fees. Thankfully, many governments are now aware of this and are returning water and sanitation administration to public hands. Paris, the heart of French private water companies, decided in January 2010 to reclaim public ownership. Water and sanitation must be for the public good and available to all.