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Lisa Fitzpatrick of ElectricAid discusses the perennial but soluble problem of WATER.

Adequate clean water is a basic and essential human right. Yet, 20% (approximately 1 billion people) of the global population does not have access to clean drinking water, while 40% (approx. 2.4 billion people) lack proper sanitation facilities. The vast majority of these people are living in developing countries. We are dealing with a global water crisis.

The supply of water is dependent on a number of factors such as evaporation, rates of rainfall, river flows and groundwater flows. Of course the available water supply is not dispersed evenly around the world. Two thirds of the world population live in areas which receive only a quarter of the total amount of annual rainfall worldwide. Much of the developing world receives freshwater from seasonal rains. Unfortunately, many of this runs off the land very rapidly and as a result it is thought that only approximately 20% is actually put to use.

Furthermore, many traditional sources of water such as wells and seasonal rivers have quite simply, at this stage been worn out which effects areas in developing countries gaining access to water. Water tables have been both lowered and supplies contaminated. In Uganda for example, the country’s largest Hydro station can no longer run efficiently because of the lowered level of Lake Victoria. The country suffers a “double whammy” of scarcity of both electricity and clean water.

‘Lack of access to clean water in developing countries is one of the most pressing problems facing humanity as we enter the 21st century’.

There are two types of water scarcity:

Physical Water Scarcity is ‘where water consumption exceeds 60% of the usable supply’

Economic Water Scarcity is ‘where a country physically has sufficient water resources to meet its needs, but additional storage and transport facilities are required’. 

Note that in neither case is there an absolute water deficit; the problem is almost always one of access to water, not one of absence of water resources. This indicates that this is a problem which can be fixed.

A huge problem that faces the countries of the developing world is that of urbanisation. Urbanisation is the process by which there is an increase in the proportion of people living in urban areas. This results in increasing numbers of people living in urban fringe areas of shanty towns where it is extremely difficult to provide an adequate supply of clean water or sanitation. Fast growing populations put increasing pressure on already limited facilities.

There is a potential for water shortages to lead to political conflicts and war. Over 20 countries depend on the flow of water from other nations for much of their water supply. Conflicts have arisen over scarce water supplies and have resulted in deliberate destruction of water supply infrastructure, deliberate cut-off of water supply facilities, and disruption of operation and maintenance of systems. The displacement of large numbers through civil strife can strain water supplies and sanitation facilities in refugee camps and host communities leading to adverse health effects.

Due to the consumption and use of contaminated water and the lack of adequate sanitation waterborne diseases such as; cholera, gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea are extremely prevalent leading to serious illness and death. It is thought that approximately 4 million people or more die each year as a result of waterborne diseases. At least 4 children die every minute from simple, preventable, water-borne diseases. If water is contaminated it costs a huge amount of money to make it safe for human consumption. This is money developing countries simply don’t have.

Even with the best will in the world there are difficulties which need to be overcome in order to gain access to water and adequate sanitation in poor communities. These include;

  • Political Position: People living in urban fringe areas are often politically powerless and marginalised, with the rest of society seeing them as a problem best ignored. Many political figures are unwilling to venture near these areas for fear of their safety, which obviously reduces their potential for development. Sometimes access to basic services such as clean water is traded for political support.
  • Settlement Locality: heavily populated areas or areas where many are living a distance from the nearest water supply have very limited access to water and sanitation. In areas with a high population there is often limited space on which development of facilities can take place.
  • Cost of Services is directly related to legal land tenure and the settlement locality as both impact on a community’s ability to pay for and install basic services. The poorest of the poor are paying ‘more per unit for essential services such as water and sanitation than middle-income residents’ Many countries do have subsidised systems in place which, when put to proper and effective use really do make a significant difference. Unfortunately, in many cases the poorest people do not benefit. The subsidies are embedded in the low prices charged by water supply and sewerage authorities to their existing customers, and the poorest people are not connected to the water supply at all. Instead it’s the middle class and the rich who benefit from this.
  • Land Tenure: Legal Land Tenure provides people and communities with official status and documentation to live in their settlement or on their land. Typically, in developing countries many residents lack legal land tenure and are disempowered. Service providers will not provide water to areas lacking legal tenure especially as politically they can’t be seen to be condoning it.
  • Climate Change: the impact of a hotter world may be benign in some places, but may be fatal in parts of the developing world. Conflicts over access to scarcer water may become commonplace. We may be witnessing a “resource war” over oil in Iraq, and may well witness wars over water in the future.

Ultimately, lack of water and poor sanitation can lead to the following;

  • Contaminated water & Water Borne Diseases
  • Illness, Expense of Medication & Death
  • Malnutrition
  • Political Instability
  • Children Missing School – many millions of children spend hours each day fetching water
  • Loss of Income/Earnings
  • Poor Drainage & disease carrying pests.
  • Unnecessarily low standard of living.

Water is a basic right – and a basic avenue of development. A recent (2005) ElectricAid project furnished 5 village wells in rural Kenya for an investment of €3,625, transforming the lives and future prospects of thousands of people. The problem is fixable, provided we have the will to fix it. We have to address infrastructural issues, community involvement issues, and political issues of access to resources – but it can be done.

Ask yourself – how many times a day do we in the developed world needlessly waste water? Water is taken for granted. In Ireland, water usage per person is about 250 litres per day, while in New York, this figure is about 680 litres. In Kenya, they use about 4 litres per day. The bottom line however is that water should be used efficiently all over the world. There is still plenty of water for all our needs, but in a fairer world, all will have the right of access to clean water. This is not the case now, and the global situation is not improving. ‘The proportion of the world’s population living in countries with significant water stress will increase from approximately 34% in 1994 to 63% in 2025, including large areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America’.

We should never forget that this incipient global water crisis can be tackled. Water shortages and lack of access to water are preventable. Let’s get on with it.