Water is a basic human necessity- without it we cannot go about our daily lives. Not just water, but water that is clean, easy to access and safe – meaning that it will not be harmful if it is used for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation.
Around 2.1 billion people lack access to safe, readily available water at home according to the WHO and UNICEF1.This is largely a problem in developing countries, but rural areas of developed countries also experience the same deficit. We sometimes forget that polluted water not only causes sickness but it can have fatal consequences. The main victims of lack of clean water are children, since 361,000 children under the age of 5 die every year due to diarrhoea caused by contaminated water1.
Poor sanitation and contaminated water is further linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid2. It is important to understand the effects of these diseases. The majority of those who contract them, may not have access to basic health care amenities such as oral replacement therapy and intravenous fluids. If they do not have access to clean water in the first place, then how are they supposed to return to good health? Furthermore, there are socio-economic effects such as children missing school due to being sick. Consequently, their education, an alternative to farming, suffers and they lose out on their only opportunity of a decent job.
Personal economic opportunities are also lost due to the impacts of illnesses acquired from unclean water. It is a time-consuming process, acquiring water when it is not readily available2.These factors lead to increased time off work or missed job opportunities, keeping people trapped in the cycle of poverty. The economies of the USA and UK depend on clean water for manufacture, farming and tourism. Moreover, water is the habitat for fish and wildlife. So, the impacts of polluted water on the ecosystem must be considered. The increased dumping of plastics into our oceans, the leaking of oil and pesticides into water leads to its pollution. These pollutants come in many forms – organic, inorganic and even radioactive – making it almost impossible for animals and plants to survive3.
Clean water is appealing for recreational activities such as paddling, surfing and swimming. However, polluted water can be a threat to our health as it may transmit harmful microorganisms whilst we are doing these activities in the water. Picnics around the lake or fishing in streams do not seem very appealing when the water is murky and dirty. Clean water is aesthetically appealing and can provide an important place of rest and quiet in rural rehabilitation or hospice centres.
What causes water contamination? The most popular cause is open defecation due an inadequate sanitation infrastructure. 12% of the global population practice open defecation1. The overall number of people practising it has declined in the past few years but is still increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania due to high population growth. It is one of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) global targets to achieve access to adequate and equitable hygiene for all and to end open defecation by 20301. Even though access to toilets will increase, behavioural changes will still need to be encouraged to promote the use of toilets, since open defecation seems to be the norm in many communities.
Additionally, even if communities have a water source, it needs to be protected. Water sources are often soiled by human or animal waste, agricultural waste, industrial chemicals and even natural pollutants. When water is in the distribution system the pipes have to be protected from contaminants, otherwise the quality of water suffers. Inappropriate storage can also result in unsafe drinking water. Once the water source is polluted, it is a difficult process to clean it again 2.
Although there has been considerable improvement since 2000, with billions of people gaining access to cleaner water, these services may not necessarily provide safe water and sanitation. The state of drinking water supplies is characterised by quality, quantity, reliability and cost 2. Only a minority of the world’s population has access to water that fulfils all four criteria. Many homes, schools and healthcare facilities still lack soap and water for handwashing. There is an increase in risk of transmission of bacterial diseases, leading to the most common symptom – diarrhoea. This seems to be a consistent problem in young children.
The UN estimates that each person requires 20-50 litres of water per day for drinking, food preparation and personal hygiene 2. We are privileged that we can access water indefinitely. Partly due to the fact that we experience a lot of wet weather, which largely aids the farming industry. Water reliability varies by season, year and location. With worldwide climate change, El Nino and La Nina variation can cause one year to be wet whilst the next year is dry in coast countries around the Pacific Ocean 2.
The majority of water sources are groundwater, but if these sources are depleted too rapidly or are not successfully recharged then the quantity of drinking water is negatively affected 2. Lack of water also affects agriculture as crop production and cattle quality may decrease, which many people in third world countries rely on as a major source of food. This results in malnutrition, a weakened immune system and is why the ecosystems surrounding unclean water sources are so prone to being affected by infection and disease.
There is always a cost for having water distributed to a house or a community. These costs are usually monetary but for some there is the added cost of time. The time it takes to travel to and from a safe drinking water source. The costs of a water supply may be subsidized by governmental institutions which is of great benefit in poor communities2. However, in some instances, it can lead to inefficient or wasteful use of the resource by those who may not fully appreciate its value. This is why education is important when providing a new water source. Local people should be taught the most effective way to use their water supply as well as how to work and fix it when things go wrong.
What can you do? You have probably seen the melodramatic WaterAid adverts on TV but this is actually the harsh reality of what people have to face. The truth is that supporting non-profit organisations like WaterAid is one of the best things we can do whilst living in the UK. As well as appreciating that we are so lucky to have access to clean water, a luxury that we take for granted at times. We may hold to the ideology that water is an inexhaustible resource but the truth is that water security may not be so stable in the future, especially with the threat of climate change. I leave you with this advice: Don’t waste your precious water!
Want to know more? – Water Aid UK – toilet designs to save lives – how much water you use & what to do about it – breaking news: less water use = cheaper water bill – mapsmapsmaps
- Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2017 Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/launch-version-report-jmp-water-sanitation-hygiene.pdf
- https://www.koshland-science-museum.org/water/html/en/Overview/index.html Accessed on 17/01/2018
- https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/pollution Accessed on 17/01/2018