UN Highlights World Water Crisis

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With so little water, basic hygiene is frequently compromised. The report estimates that households getting water from taps may use 30 times more water for child hygiene compared with those who have to collect water from a communal source.

This brings the added burden of illness to families already living in poverty. Infectious waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera are responsible for 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world, many of them children. One child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease; 15 million children a year.

Women and female children who have to travel to collect water pay a high cost. Less time is available for caring for children, preparing food, or pursuing alternate economic activities. In some regions the women and girls must travel through unsafe areas and are vulnerable to attack. Families in many cases must forego sending their girls to school, perpetuating the grinding cycle of illiteracy and poverty.

The amount of water a person needs can vary; a person doing manual labor in the tropics will need more water than someone sitting at a computer in a temperate zone. WHO suggests 2 to 4.5 liters (0.5 to 1 gallon) a day for drinking, and another 4 liters (1 gallon) for cooking and food preparation are the bottom-line limits for survival. This doesn't take into account water needs for growing food.

The minimum quantity of water recommended by the U.S. Agency for International Development for household and urban use alone is close to 100 liters (26.4 gallons) per person per day.

Mismanagement Not Scarcity

"This crisis is one of water governance, essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water," conclude the authors of the UN's World Water Development Report (WWDR) issued in March. Freshwater resources are being further squandered due to pollution and the way in which we use water.

Some two million tons of waste per day are disposed of within receiving waters, including industrial wastes and chemicals, human waste and agricultural wastes, according to report. World Watch Institute estimates that every minute, 1.1 million liters (300,000 gallons) of raw sewage are dumped into the Ganges River, the primary source of water for many Indians.

Only about 35 percent of the wastewater is treated in Asia, and about 14 percent is treated in Latin America. Only a negligible percentage of treatment has been reported in Africa. Even in industrialized countries, sewage is not universally treated, according to UNEP.

Agriculture accounts for over 80 per cent of world water consumption, and yet around 60 percent of the water used for irrigation is wasted, lost to leaky canals, evaporation, and mismanagement. Fertilizer and pesticide residues from agricultural activities also contribute to contamination of fresh water resources.

In large cities of developing countries, the percentage of unaccounted-for water is also very high, around 40 percent. Most of this water is simply lost to leaky systems.

Many of the remedies available for conserving and managing freshwater resources are politically and socially difficult; many rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers cross national boundaries and can be shared by several countries.

But water experts are agreed that adopting long term goals is imperative.

"The difficulty in managing groundwaters lies in the fact that they are often easy and relatively cheap to tap for large numbers of users," said Brian Morris, principal hydrogeologist at the British Geological Survey.

"What is needed is pragmatic management such as increasing public and government awareness, properly resourcing the agencies that manage groundwater, supporting community management, and encouraging the use of incentives and disincentives particularly in poorer countries and rural areas," he said. "It is vital we give groundwater value like any other scarce resource."

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