From the UN: Update on Water and Sanitation

From the UN: Update on Water and Sanitation

By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman

Amazingly, more people in the world have cell phones than access to a toilet.

Inadequate water and sanitation do not make headlines but claim many lives through disease. This is a “silent disaster” with major health consequences. Let’s look at the situation in greater detail.

How much water is there? Most of our planet is covered by water but very little of that water is available for humans to drink. Most of the water consists of oceans, which are composed of saltwater. In fact, 97% of the Earth’s water is ocean. Less than 3 percent consists of freshwater from rivers, lakes and aquifers. Also, water is not distributed equally around the globe. Less than10 countries possess 60 percent of the world’s freshwater. Eighty five percent of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet. About two-thirds of the Earth’s population experience severe water scarcity at some point during the year.

What is the current situation? About 800 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water and one in three (2.5 billion) do not have access to adequate sanitation. About a billion people defecate in the open; raising the risk that reservoirs and wells will be contaminated. Wordwide, one of every five deaths of children under age 5 is due to a water-related disease. Having children dying from preventable and treatable disease is totally unacceptable.

Poor sanitation is linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid. Clearly, we have a serious public health crisis.

Has there been progress? The water situation has improved. Since 1990, 2.5 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water. This is a real achievement, but about 700 million are still using unsafe drinking water. However, progress on sanitation has been marginal and unsatisfactory. Currently, only 68 percent of the world’s population uses an improved sanitation facility.

Is water a source of conflict or cooperation? Water resources often cross political boundaries in the form of lakes, rivers and aquifers. This hydrological interdependence raises issues of conflict and cooperation. Pollution knows no boundaries, either. Much sewage in developing countries flows untreated into rivers and lakes. There are numerous examples in which trans-boundary waters have proved to be a source of cooperation rather than conflict. Nearly 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007. One example: During two wars between India and Pakistan, a treaty on water sharing survived.

What is the experience from European history? Lack of sanitation during the European Middle Ages and early Renaissance was widespread. During this time towns all across Europe were dirty, crowded, and full of feces, contaminated water and virtually no personal hygiene. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid spread and caused a rapid decline of life expectancy for Europeans (average life span was under 30 years of age). All this resulted in the disastrous epidemic of the Black Death Plague.

The movement for sanitary improvement started in the early Nineteenth Century with sweeping reforms. Adequate funds were raised for building and maintaining effective sewage systems as well as infrastructure for clean water. The sanitary revolution was accompanied with improvement in personal hygiene.

Is desalination a solution? Israel is one of the driest countries. In 2008 it was seriously short of water. A decade long draught had scourged the Middle East and Israel’s largest source of freshwater, as the Sea of Galilee’s water level was seriously reduced. Now, Israel has more water than it needs. Israel has pioneered the technology of desalination and has built several plants.

Israel and the West Bank share an aquifer. The Oslo agreement stipulates that Israel can use 80 percent and Palestinians 20 percent, which is very unfair. Israel supplies the West Bank with water as required by Oslo but they still receive far less than they need. Also, the Palestinians are not connected to Israel’s water grid.

Desalination plants are expensive, use a lot of energy and have to be near a body of water. It may not be the answer for many countries.

What must be done? What is needed is a worldwide sanitation movement. That is one of the United Nations’ goals. They have pushed the agenda, but more progress is needed.

UNICEF has been active with their WASH initiative (water, sanitation, hygiene). The WASH team has provided nearly 14 million people with clean water and over 11 million with basic toilets. In India, where 48 percent of the population still relieve themselves outdoors, UNICEF launched a campaign to end the practice of open defecation with videos, talks and slogans. In one video, the slogan is “take the poo to the loo.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched a “Reinvent the Toilet” campaign. They offered $42 million to researchers, asking them to build the toilet of tomorrow–one that is safe, hygienic, uses little water and is easy to install. Prototypes have been built and are being tested.

To support the important sanitation movement, go to

Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld is an IHEU representative to the United Nations.

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