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Drying the Tears of Thirsty Nations

The problem is huge, but relatively cheap, low-tech solutions are available.

September 12, 2004|Margaret Wertheim | Margaret Wertheim is the author of "Pythagoras' Trousers" and "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet."

Pick a crisis -- any crisis -- the world is facing today: civil war, famine, AIDS, malaria, land mines. All pale in comparison with the problem we face regarding water. "Enormous in scale and brutal in consequences, especially for the world's poorest," is how it is described in a briefing for an upcoming international meeting on the subject.

The figures themselves are numbing: More than 1.1 billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. That's one in six people. More than 2.3 billion -- or one person in three -- lack access to adequate means of disposing of human waste. Two million die each year from water-related diseases, which account for 80% of all illness in the developing world. At any given time, half the population in the developing world is sick from a water-related malady, and 10,000 a day die.

Urgent recognition of the water crisis led the United Nations at its Millennial Summit, and again at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, to formulate a set of "millennial development goals" for access to drinking water and sanitation. According to the agreed-upon agenda, the world community committed itself to halving the proportion of people who lack these basic amenities by 2015.

It is one thing to sign a declaration; it is quite another to make it happen. "We are nowhere near to fulfilling those goals," said Dr. Ralph Daley, director of the United Nations University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health (INWEH), based in Hamilton, Canada.

In order to achieve the U.N. targets, 630 million people would have to be supplied with safe drinking water. That's about 175,000 a day for the next 10 years. The sanitation challenge is even more daunting: Over the next decade, 1.4 billion people -- or about 400,000 a day -- would have to be provided with service.

Even then we would still be reaching only half the population in need. To bring service levels up to 100% by 2025, 800 million more would have to be provided with water and 1.7 billion more with sanitation.

We are not talking here about luxury service. Simply the bare minimums -- drinking water that is free from parasites and bacterial agents, and in terms of sanitation, just basic cesspits, what we would call an external latrine and which most of us would hesitate to use. "Nobody is even beginning to consider indoor plumbing," Daley said. "First of all, we have to stop people dying and getting seriously ill. Only then we can move on to levels of convenience."

Though the world community has committed to these goals, the scale of the problem has stymied action. Concerned that inertia might cripple progress entirely, the U.N. recently created a high-level board to advise the secretary-general. Chaired by former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and including Egypt's minister for irrigation and water, South Africa's minister of water affairs, a former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman, the group met for its inaugural meeting at the end of July.

Later this month, senior water specialists from relevant U.N. agencies are scheduled to meet for several days in Rome to discuss how the organization's different branches can coordinate their efforts within the U.N. system and with external organizations.

"This is much more than a policy issue," Daley said. "This is millions of people dying and billions of people getting sick. We could stop this in its tracks by 2025 if we had the will." In a comparative sense, the amount of money needed is small -- between $10 billion and $20 billion a year for the next 15 to 20 years. To put that into perspective, in the United States we spent $61 billion on carbonated soft drinks in 2003 and $71 billion on beer -- beverages that do not save lives. And despite our indoor plumbing and tertiary water treatment plants, we spent more than $23 billion on bottled water.

If developed nations shouldered the full cost of providing water services to all those in need around the world, it would amount to just 4 cents per person per day. But because developing nations already pay half their water costs, and would no doubt be motivated to continue to do so, that would leave those of us in the developed world with a bill of just 2 cents a day per person, or $7 a year. Less than the price of a takeout pizza. In the panoply of problems facing the world -- global warming, rising sea levels, air pollution and so on -- unsafe water and inadequate sanitation are among the few that are genuinely solvable over the short term. .

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