Monday, September 12, 2011

Dying of thirst – Challenges of accessing clean water

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Badukrom is a small village in the tropical rain-forest of the Western Region of Ghana, close to the popular mining town of Tarkwa.
One of its major challenges is that it has only one borehole serving the entire community numbering a few hundreds and when it breaks down those fortunate to have dug wells would depend on them for their water needs until the pump is serviced.
In the event that the well runs dry whilst the pump has not been serviced, the members of the community would have no choice than to rely on any water they can lay hands on.
The people of Badukrom, despite the tricky situation they find themselves in, may be considered lucky in that they at least for most part of the year are able to draw water from a functioning borehole pump.
Although water is an essential commodity, without which there will be no life on earth, many communities, both in Ghana and worldwide go through struggles each day, just to access their daily needs.
This commodity which holds the key to all life forms is getting scarcer each day, week, month and passing year and this continued scarcity has largely been attributed to mismanagement of the resource by man.
It is in view of this that the United Nations General Assembly in 1992, designated March 22 as World Water Day to raise public awareness about the dwindling resource, call attention to what is regarded as the world’s major health issue – the global scarcity of clean water and to promote the conservation and development of global water resources.
The Day is marked every year worldwide with a host of events and programmes.
According to the 2nd UN World Water Development Report, more than a billion people, who constitute almost one-fifth of the world’s population lack access to safe drinking water, while 40 percent lack access to basic sanitation.
In an interview with Larry West, Guide, Gary White, Executive Director and co-founder of WaterPartners International, a non profit organisation committed to providing clean drinking water to communities in developing countries, said the global water crisis is the leading cause of death and disease in the world, taking the lives of more than 14,000 people each day, 11,000 of them children under age 5.
He said in addition to the health problems, women and girls spend more than 200 million hours every day walking to collect water from distant, often polluted sources—time that could be better spent on more productive endeavours such as work and school. “When you combine these factors, it’s clear that the global water crisis is the single biggest problem facing the world’s poor, preventing them from reaching even the first rung on the socioeconomic ladder,” he said.
Garry White continued that the leading cause of child death in the world is diarrhoea, with children under age five suffering 1.5 billion episodes of diarrhoea each year, four million of which are fatal. “Even for the children who survive, this chronic diarrhoea prevents them from thriving as they should. And for older girls, the responsibilities of carrying water are a leading cause of dropping out of school,” he stated.
Billions lack clean water
For its part, Earth Talk, a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine quotes the World Bank as saying as many as two billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities to protect them from water-borne disease, while a billion lack access to clean water altogether. It continues that according to the United Nations, which has declared 2005-2015 the “Water for Life” decade, 95 percent of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their water supplies, hence it should come as no surprise to know that 80 percent of all the health maladies in developing countries can be traced back to unsanitary water.
Water scarcity likely to increase as population grows
The article states further that Sandra Postel, author of the 1998 book, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, predicts big water availability problems as populations of so-called “water-stressed” countries jump perhaps six fold over the next 30 years. “It raises tons of issues about water and agriculture, growing enough food, providing for all the material needs that people demand as incomes increase, and providing drinking water,” says Postel.
Desalination solution opposed
With world population expected to pass nine billion by mid-century, solutions to water scarcity problems are not going to come easy, the article posits, adding that some have suggested that technology–such as large-scale saltwater desalination plants–could generate more freshwater for the world to use.
But even though environmentalists argue that depleting ocean water is no answer and will only create other big problems, research and development into improving desalination technologies is ongoing, especially in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Japan and already an estimated 11,000 desalination plants exist in some 120 countries around the world.
Water and market economics
Others believe that applying market principles to water would facilitate a more efficient distribution of supply everywhere, with analysts at the Harvard Middle East Water Project, for example, advocating assigning a monetary value to freshwater, rather than considering it a free natural commodity. They say such an approach could help mitigate the political and security tensions caused by water scarcity.
Water more valuable than oil
Meanwhile, Bloomberg News states that the scarcity of usable water worldwide has already made water more valuable than oil. The Bloomberg World Water Index, which tracks 11 utilities, has returned 35 percent to investors every year since 2003, compared with 29 percent for oil and gas stocks and 10 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
“There is only one direction for water prices at the moment, and that’s up,” said Hans Peter Portner, who manages a $2.9 billion US Water Fund at Pictet Asset Management in Geneva, according to a report by Bloomberg News. The value of the fund increased 26 percent in 2005, and Portner expects water to provide 8 percent annual returns through 2020.
Freshwater becoming more scarce
On its part, the United Nations estimates that by 2050 more than two billion people in 48 countries will lack sufficient water. Approximately 97 percent to 98 percent of the water on planet Earth is saltwater (the estimates vary slightly depending on the source). Much of the remaining freshwater is frozen in glaciers or the polar ice caps. Lakes, rivers and groundwater account for just about one percent of the world’s potentially usable freshwater, the world body says.
But the dire straits the world faces is that if global warming continues to melt glaciers in the polar regions, as expected, the supply of freshwater may actually decrease, the UN warns. It says first, freshwater from the melting glaciers will mingle with saltwater in the oceans and become too salty to drink. Second, the increased ocean volume will cause sea levels to rise, contaminating freshwater sources along coastal regions with seawater.
Complicating matters even further is that 95 percent of the world’s cities continue to dump raw sewage into rivers and other freshwater supplies, making them unsafe for human consumption.
The need for freshwater is increasing rapidly
Yet, while freshwater supplies are at best static, and at worst decreasing, the world’s population is growing rapidly. The United Nations estimates that the world population -approximately 6.5 billion in 2006 – will grow to 9.4 billion by 2050.
The cost of water is usually set by government agencies and local regulators and water isn’t traded on commodity exchanges, but many utilities stocks are publicly traded. However, investments in companies that provide desalinisation, and other processes and technologies that may increase the world’s supply of freshwater, are growing rapidly.
Companies investing in water
General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said the scarcity of clean water around the world will more than double GE’s revenue from water purification and treatment by 2010—to a total of $5 billion.
GE’s strategy is for its water division to invest in desalinisation and purification in countries that have a shortage of freshwater. Saudi Arabia is expected to invest more than $80 billion in desalinisation plants and sewer facilities by 2025 to meet the needs of its growing population. And while China is home to 20 percent of the world’s people, only seven (7) percent of the planet’s freshwater supply is located there.
“This will be a big and growing market for a long time,” Immelt said at the GE annual meeting in Philadelphia in April 2006.
Bottled water not always a aealthier option for people at risk from tap water
So what is the way forward?
Tap water is not without its problems. In 2005, the non profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the United States of America (USA), tested municipal water in 42 states and detected some 260 contaminants in public water supplies. Of those, 141 were unregulated chemicals for which public health officials have no safety standards, much less methods for removing them.
In a bid to improve the access to potable water as city authorities grapple with unwholesome water from water taps, there has been a revolution in the production of bottled and sachet water in a host of countries worldwide including Ghana, which has also brought in its wake numerous challenges.
Commenting on some of the challenges, the Vice Chairperson of Ghana’s Coalition of NGOs in the Water Sector (CONIWAS), Mrs. Hawa Nibi Amenga-Etego, early on in the year at a press conference maintained that the production and consumption of sachet water is not sustainable, as environmental pollution of thin plastics and the associated economic costs to the nation far outweigh the employment benefits it creates for those who engage in it.
“Abandoning tap water altogether simply as a result of marketing gimmicks and perceived poor quality, and resorting to packaged water as the main source of drinking water constitutes negative development in the wrong direction,” she stated.
Tap water vs bottled water
Despite these seemingly alarming statistics, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), of the USA, which has also conducted extensive tests on municipal water supplies as well as bottled water, says: “In the short term, if you are an adult with no special health conditions, and you are not pregnant, then you can drink most cities’ tap water without having to worry.” This is because most of the contaminants in public water supplies exist at such small concentrations that most people would have to ingest very large quantities for health problems to occur.
CONIWAS for its part is concerned about the right to water by all. It says “The infiltration of bottled and sachet water into our market has become the biggest threat to the realisation of the right to water in Ghana, as it has successfully diverted people’s attention away from more affordable sources to more expensive and unsustainable bottled and sachet water, which costs 500 times (in the case of sachet water) and 1,600 times (in the case of bottled water) higher than other improved sources such as taps, with little or no improvement in the quality.”
The group, which made these statements at a press conference in Accra earlier in the year on Sustainable Financing of Water and Sanitation Services in Ghana organised by the Foundation For Grassroots Initiatives in Africa, reminded that General Comment number 15 (GC 15) of the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) sets out the tripartite responsibility of states to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water.
Making the statements on behalf of the Coalition, Mrs. Hawa Nibi Amenga-Etego, stressed that “A state protects the right by preventing third parties (including private companies) from interfering with enjoyment of the right, including the imposition of appropriate regulatory measures (including taxes) on such parties.”
CONIWAS maintained that sachet and bottled water constitute commodification of water and interference in the right to water, saying “A service as essential as water cannot be subject to market forces.”
What are the health risks of tap water?
NRDC does caution, however, that “pregnant women, young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and those with weakened immune systems can be especially vulnerable to the risks posed by contaminated water.”
What are the health risks of bottled water?
According to Earth Talk, in respect of bottled water, it is first important to know that 25 to 30 percent of it comes straight from municipal tap water systems, despite the pretty nature scenes on the bottles that imply otherwise. Some of that water goes through additional filtering, but some does not. NRDC has researched bottled water extensively and has found that it is “subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those which apply to city tap water.”
The same can be said about bottled water in Ghana which has recently come under attack from the Coalition of NGOs in the Water Sector (CONIWAS), who maintain that the solution to Ghana’s teething water problems does not lie in bottles or sachet water but improvement of the quality of the country’s water that is piped to consumers.
Bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration bottled water rules allow for some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliform, contrary to EPA tap water rules that prohibit any such contamination.
Similarly, NRDC found that there are no requirements for bottled water to be disinfected or tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or giardia, unlike more stringent EPA rules regulating tap water. This leaves open the possibility, says NRDC, that some bottled water may present similar health threats to those with weakened immune systems, the elderly and others they caution about drinking tap water.
One-third of Africans lack drinking water
A report released in 2006 at the 13th Congress of the African Water Association (AFWA) in the Algerian capital of Algiers warned that one-third of the African population has no drinking water and almost half of the African people have health problems due to the lack of clean drinking water.
According to a story on the report filled by Xinhua (China), if the current situation can’t be improved, at least 17 African countries will suffer from a severe water shortage by 2010, which could also lead to clashes between some countries in the region.
It continued that although Africa has abundant water resources amounting to 5.4 trillion cubic meters, only four (4) percent of them have been developed and utilised because of the lack of funds and facilities.
Meanwhile, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), states that the world population suffering from water shortage should be reduced by half which means that on the African continent alone, at least $12 billion is needed each year to realise that goal.

This story was first published on March 22, 2010

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