Water is no doubt the most important substance for life. It also provides the foundation for good public health. Humans are 60% water, and 70% of our brains are made up of it. As little as a 2% drop in our body water can produce signs of dehydration, such as poor short-term memory, focus and blurred vision, as well as being a common cause of fatigue. Water is also very important for agriculture and food production. Producing 1kg of rice uses approximately 3500L of water, whilst 1kg of beef uses 15000L on average.
With numerous sources at risk, both the quantity and quality of water is a cause for concern.
The importance of ‘clean’ water
Of utmost importance is that the water reaching people’s mouths is clean, free of chemicals and visibly clear – this is known as potable water; water that is safe for drinking. Obtaining and preserving clean water is essential to maintain enough water for drinking, food production and recreational use.
‘Unsafe’ water – non-potable water – is produced when pathogens finding way to water supplies and inadequate sanitation. Non-potable water harbours infectious germs, toxic chemicals and radiological substances that can cause disease. Contaminated water leads to the transmission of diarrhoeal disease such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid fever, and other diseases such as polio, hep A, trachoma, plague and typhus. Water is also crucial for clinical hygiene in hospitals. In low and middle-income countries, 35% of hospitals do not have water and soap for hand washing; a direct result of this is that it is these countries that have the highest incidence of developing an infection during a hospital stay.
In 2010, access to sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessable and affordable water and sanitation was recognised as a human right by the UN.
However, 1 in 10 people still lack access to safe water, that’s two times the population of the United States. Each year, 6-8 million people die due to water related diseases, and over 800,000 die from diarrhoea alone.
Woman collecting clean water from a pump in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, installed by the NGO Concern with funding from the UK
Our water problem
The disparity in access to potable water in developed and developing countries is staggering.
In the African Region, 1 in 3 people are impacted by water scarcity, and this is only worsening with population growth and urbanization. There are approximately 115 deaths every hour in this region, and this is due in a huge part to the water problem. Less than 40% of rural African countries had an improvement in water source since 1990. In Chad, 87.9% of the population did not have improved access to sanitation facilities in 2015. In contrast, Australia has enjoyed 100% water supply and sanitation facility access, and proper water management has almost eliminated the pathogens that pose disease risk.
Where to from here?
Water availability is a global problem, and critical attention is required to improve the disparity that exists. In addition, improved sanitation, supply and control of resources can boost economic growth and contribute to a reduction in poverty. Thankfully, recent policy and measures have so far been effective.
For example, the MDG 7 drinking water target to ‘halve the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to water’ was met in 2010, and by 2015, 91% of the world population had access to an improved water source. According to the Water Organisation, every dollar invested in water sanitation produces a four-fold return. There is, however, still much to be done in improving and maintaining clean and adequate water supply.
Projected population growth predicts an increase in food demand by 70% in 2050; whist energy demand from hydropower may rise by 60% in 2030. The WHO estimates that by 2025, 50% of the population will be living in a water-stressed area. The achievement of Sustainable development goals 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3, to ‘halve the proportion of untreated wastewater … by 2030’, together with increased re-use, recovery and recycling of our resources is integral to sustain and increase the availability of clean water for all.
- The Department of Health (AU). Water – its importance and source (Internet). Canberra: The Department of Health (AU); 2010 Nov (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-enhealth-manual-atsi-cnt-l~ohp-enhealth-manual-atsi-cnt-l-ch6~ohp-enhealth-manual-atsi-cnt-l-ch6.1
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. What is Water Cooperation (Internet). United Nations: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; 2013 (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from:http://www.unwater.org/water-cooperation-2013/water-cooperation/facts-and-figures/en/
- Water.org (US). Facts about Water and Sanitation (Internet). Kansas City: Water.org (US); 2015 (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-sanitation-facts/
- The World Bank. Improved water source, urban (% of urban population with access) (Internet). Geneva: The World Bank; 2015 (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.H2O.SAFE.UR.ZS?view=map&year=2015
- World Health Organization. Drinking-water (Internet). Geneva: World Health Organization; 2016 Nov (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs391/en/
- World Health Organization. How does safe water impact global health? (Internet). Geneva: World Health Organization; 2008 Jun (cited 2017 Feb 14). Available from: http://www.who.int/features/qa/70/en/