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 per cent 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.
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, Ont.
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 per cent 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.
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. 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.
As director of the U.N.'s premier water think tank, Daley is almost despairing about the developed world's inaction. "Dying from lack of water is every bit as ugly as dying from AIDS," he said. "It's absolutely horrible."
The good news is that providing water services requires no new technology. That may be one of the reasons it's received so little attention. Climate change and AIDS engage major scientific minds. Understanding both pushes research in radical new directions and makes for exciting media stories, but no one is going to win a Nobel prize for putting in latrines.
What we need, Daley says, is a Marshall Plan for water.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has been thinking along such lines, and his government is bringing together a group of water experts and policymakers from the developed and developing worlds — representatives of what are known as the G20 countries — to think through what could be done to motivate action at a global level. The meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Alexandria, Egypt, in early December, will be the first of its kind, Daley says, because it recognizes the necessity of engaging nations where the crisis is worst — places like India, China, Indonesia and Nigeria.
"If we could provide water to everyone on Earth, it would send a message that the developing world counts," Daley said.
Margaret Wertheim, a science writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers, a history of the relationship between physics, religion, and women.
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