Water: a very 21st century problem

It’s a substance that’s very easy to take for granted. It’s clear, pretty much flavourless, and in many parts of New Zealand it’s still free on demand. In our country particularly, we have always assumed that our supply is pure and essentially limitless. Yet although we tend to take it for granted, boy do you miss it when it’s gone. While much of the world wrings its hands over securing continuing supply of another valuable liquid, oil, we are ignoring the increasing scarcity of the world’s most basic and precious resource at our peril.



March 22 was World Water Day, an event that probably passed many by, but one which is globally significant. World Water Day is recognised by the United Nations.

According to Water.org (a non-profit organisation founded by actor Matt Damon and water-supply expert Gary White, who made the Time magazine top 100 in 2011 for their work), a child dies from a water-related disease every 20 seconds. Each year, 3.575 million people die from water-related disease, of which 84% are children.

That figure is hard to fathom: most of the population of New Zealand, including all our children, die annually worldwide from preventable water-borne disease. The water and sanitation crisis in the developing world claims far more lives than any war.

“Most of the population of New Zealand, including all our children, die annually worldwide from preventable water-borne disease.”

But, as dreadful as those figures sound, they actually represents progress. Only two years ago, the statistic was one child dead every 15 seconds. That decrease of 5 seconds might not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but it nonetheless represents over 1,000,000 children who otherwise would have died in the past two years alone.



The majority of the water pollution is caused by faecal matter contamination. Lack of sanitation is the world’s biggest cause of infection. The statistics are alarming: nearly one billion people, around one in every eight people in the world, lack access to clean water. Two out of five people worldwide lack access to sanitation. More people in the world have a cellphone than a toilet. Only 10% of waste water worldwide gets treated. The rest is channelled into our lakes, rivers and oceans – the very sources of water that we require to live.

“More people in the world have a cellphone than have a toilet.”

It is estimated that 1/10 of the world’s disease problems could be eliminated through the improvement of water supplies, sanitation and the management of our water resources.



What are some of the worst-hit countries in the world? The following countries have significant populations whose only source of water is contaminated water:

  • Sudan – 12.3 million affected
  • Venezuela – 5.0 million affected
  • Ethiopia – 2.7 million affected
  • Tunisia – 2.1 million affected
  • Cuba – 1.3 million affected

The scarcity of clean and potable water currently seems like a predominantly developing-world problem and, yes, it largely is. For those reasons it’s sadly too easy to dismiss it as a problem that affects other people, and one that is largely beyond our control.

Yet it’s only been 150 years since the developed world tackled these issues – in the 1800s child death rates in London, Paris and New York were as high as they are now in sub-Saharan Africa. A poll by the British Medical Journal in 2007 found that clean water and sanitation were rated as the most important medical advancement since 1840.

It behoves us in the developed world to use our accumulated resources and our skills to bring these awful statistics down further in those countries who do not have the resources to help themselves.



And water sanitation isn’t just a health issue: it’s an economic one too. Communities with access to clean water and sanitation see tangible progress in school attendance, economic productivity, averted healthcare costs, and local development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that for every $1 that is invested in clean water and sanitation, a $3-$4 return is gained, depending on the region and technology.

To take just one simple result: the value of deaths averted worldwide as result of providing clean water and sanitation, based on discounted future earnings, would amount to US$3.6 billion a year.



To take another: women worldwide spent 200 million hours each day just collecting water for their families from distant, often polluted resources. Imagine the productivity they could be investing in their regions, their countries, if they weren’t spending a disproportionate amount of time merely collecting the substance that flows out of our taps on demand.

So water scarcity isn’t just a health issue: it’s an economic issue, a development issue, and even a gender equity issue.

And it’s a warning. If we don’t take care to preserve the precious resources we have on our doorstep, it might be our turn to follow next. The scarcity of clean water is an issue that in the 21st century is going to become increasingly prominent not only in the developing world, but globally. Clean water is already scarce, and it’s only going to become scarcer as the world’s population continues to increase, economies expand and the effects of climate change begin to be felt.



A 2009 study by the United Nations Global Compact warned that climate change will increase water shortages due to changes in precipitation patterns and intensity (particularly in the subtropics and mid-latitudes where much of the world’s poorest populations live), decrease natural water storage capacity in glaciers and snowcaps, and impact water quality through increased erosion rates and contamination of coastal groundwater resources through seawater rise.

And increasing water scarcity also increases the risk of war and global instability as countries are brought into conflict over possession of scare supplies ­– as highlighted by a US intelligence report released just this past Thursday. These issues will pose new problems not just to developing countries but to the entire world.

In this regard, the government’s decision this week to commence an investigation into the practice of fracking in the Taranaki region is heartening – concerns have been raised that we may be allowing significant water contamination to take place in our own backyard, to the detriment of the health of those in the Taranaki region, for the sake of cheap and easy oil and natural gas exploration. The sooner the truth is found out about this issue, the better.



But much more still needs to be done. Better sanitation needs to be provided in developing countries. UNICEF presently works in over 90 countries to provide safe drinking water and sanitation, and also to promote basic hygiene techniques – techniques as simple as using hand soap.

The developing world also needs more wells, more rain catchments and water treatment facilities. The Free Water Project (http://www.freewaterproject.com) helps address water shortages through the use of wind turbines. The Waves for Water project (http://www.wavesforwater.org) aims to distribute water filters worldwide through volunteer “clean water couriers”.

The spread of wastewater treatment plants and a reduction in worldwide water overuse are also long-term solutions. Desalination technologies may also assist. And, of course, tackling the root causes of man-made climate change is absolutely imperative.

Yet most importantly – and most easily done for every UN Youther – the issues of clean water and sanitation need to be brought to greater public attention. But don’t wait until next year’s World Water Day to take any action. The resources are all out there – read up and educate yourself on the issues, educate others, and even consider giving a donation through Water.org.

The 1 million children who have been saved in the past two years – and perhaps your own grandchildren – will thank you for it.

David Turner