A world of water hazards

August 30, 2002|By Joan B. Rose

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The people of the world will use nearly 3 trillion gallons of water today for drinking, sweeping away waste, recreation and such commercial applications as farming.

More than a billion people are without access to safe water supplies, and more than 3 billion lack adequate sanitation services. These conditions often lead to severe water contamination in many parts of the globe and have been estimated to contribute to billions of illnesses and millions of deaths each year.

Unsafe water is also the single greatest health risk faced by the world's children. The situation cannot be overstated. Hundreds of millions of children are gambling with their lives every time they take a sip of water. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that polluted water contributes to the deaths of 15 million children under age 5 every year.

These daunting statistics represent the dire state of our global drinking water supply.

In the United States, security concerns, drought emergencies and storm-driven events are our primary water challenges. There is no question that these are difficult matters that require novel approaches. Abroad, particularly in the developing world, nations contend with rampant, often unchecked, microbial contamination, exacerbating the global burden of disease.

The United Nations estimates that given a 50 percent increase in human population over the next 50 years coupled with expected increases in industrial and economic use of water, half of the world's future population will not have access to a ready freshwater source.

The implications are significant, including food shortages, increases in instances of waterborne diseases and conflicts between countries over shared water resources.

The good news is that the dire situation is attracting global attention. Late last year, experts from around the world convened in Bonn, Germany, for the International Conference on Freshwater. Participants reaffirmed the sweeping goal to halve both the proportion of people without access to safe water and the proportion of people lacking access to improved sanitation by 2015.

The conference raised freshwater issues to the forefront of the agenda for this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is under way in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is bringing together heads of state and government, leaders from nongovernmental organizations, businesses and others to set a path forward to help improve the lives of the world's growing population in a sustainable manner.

Experts agree that sustainable water policies, global in scope, are necessary to ensure a healthy future. International officials estimate that about $25 billion a year over eight to 10 years would be required to bring safe water and sanitation to all those who need it.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this challenge; solving the global water crisis requires an individualized, practical and sustainable approach in every affected community with the combined support of governments, public health advocates and private industry.

Indeed, satisfying the basic human right to safe water will require a working partnership of global leaders within the scientific and engineering communities and government and industrial sectors to debate and discuss a system of global monitoring programs. They would focus in particular on the control of microbial waterborne pathogens and the role of disinfection, the cornerstone for the protection against waterborne agents.

Providing sustainable water resources also will require integrated sanitation and water management strategies that address watershed stewardship, pollution control and cost-effective and reliable engineering solutions to ensure safety from the source to the tap.

Technologically advanced monitoring systems using molecular-based methods on a chip offer the opportunity to gather tremendous information on water quality at low cost. These systems need to be supported by the international water community.

With a simple turn of the faucet, it is easy for most Americans to take for granted the safety of our water. In the United States, waterborne diseases have been dramatically reduced through a century's use of filtration and chlorine disinfection. Yet emerging contaminants in our water routinely appear in the headlines throughout the United States. We can play a leadership role in the global fight for safe water.

With one child dying worldwide every eight seconds from a water-related disease, we must redouble our efforts and find long-term and comprehensive solutions. The Johannesburg summit is an important step in this direction, but it must be followed by commitments and action.

Joan Rose, a microbiologist at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, chairs the Water Quality and Health Council.

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