Hopeful World Water Day!

By Daniel Collins 22/03/2010

World Water Day isn’t really an occasion for celebrating. Nor is it really a sombre occasion to remember past sacrifices. It’s an opportunity to highlight a problem and work towards a solution, lest we become complacent.

This year’s focus is on water quality.

From the UN:

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 4 billion cases of diarrhea each year in addition to millions of other cases of illness are associated with lack of access to water that is safe for human consumption. Per year 2,2 million people die as a result of diarrhea most of them are children under the age of five. Human health is severely impacted by water-related diseases (waterborne, water-washed, water-based, and water-related vector-borne infections) as well as by chemical pollution discharged to water.”

These statistics are essentially a problem of the developing world.

While the developed world has it share of water quality problems, stemming largely from industrial contaminants like heavy metals, hydrocarbons, nitrogen and phosphorus, it is more often the natural ecosystems that bear the brunt than the people. We have the flexibility to avoid drinking the water or swimming in the lake, even if we don’t like it.

Developing countries are not so lucky – they do not have the same freedoms. Access to safe water is so low that many people only have the freedom to choose between poor water and no water. This means that the health burden of poor water quality falls predominantly among the poor global south. If you ascribe to Amartya Sen’s story, as I do, it is development that brings us our necessary freedoms. Though with development also comes different types of water quality problems.

But what of the solutions?

Direct solutions are varied and many. Where sewer systems are absent, latrines are a must, and should be designed to encourage use and keep the wastes away from freshwater supplies. Where potable water is not supplied, some way to make water potable is also a must. This may be some filtration device or simply boiling, but then to facilitate boiling energy is needed, and that opens a whole new can of worms (i.e., house-hold air quality, deforestation, yadda yadda). For developed situations, the preferred solutions are typically along the lines of keeping the pollution out of the water supply, say by fencing agricultural streams and reducing fertiliser applications, or by using less-polluting chemicals in the manufacturing process. But we should also use water treatment facilities to mop up around the edges.

I say “direct” solutions above because they don’t come of their own accord. They need to be managed or bought by indirect actions. Some say regulation is the way to go. Others push economic incentives. Voluntary efforts can work, but also fail. Maybe it’s rooted in unsustainable population growth, or a shift in our collective values. I’m being very vague here, because these debates get very hairy very quickly and I’m not going there today.

In the end, though, take this opportunity to think about how the quality of water available to you determines what you can do with that water – swimming, fishing, growing crops, bathing, drinking, or just plain surviving. And then, if you’re so inclined, consider what you and others can do to have more water-related freedoms.

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