drought in Somalia
The main problems with water are shortages of water, shortages of clean water and waterborne diseases. Around 80 percent of all deaths from illness in the developing world are caused by lack of access to safe water. More than 5 million people die each year from water-related diseases such as severe diarrhea, hepatitis A and dysentery.

An estimated 900 million to 1.1 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water and 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation, and demand for water is currently increasing at a rate faster than population growth. Over the past 70 years, while the world’s population has tripled demand for water has increased sixfold. The United Nations estimates that in 2025 that 5 billion of the world’s 8 billion people will live in areas where water is scarce and many of these people will have difficulty attaining enough water to meet their basic needs.

Growing populations, expanding agriculture, industrialization and high living standards have all boosted demand for water while drought, overuse and pollution have all decreased supplies. To make up for the shortfall water is often taken from lakes, rivers and wetlands, causing serious environmental damage. According to a 2003 United Nations report, “Across the globe, groundwater is being depleted by the demands of megacities and agriculture, while fertilizer runoff and pollution are threatening water quality and public health.”

Every week it seems there are alarming predictions related to water: disease, starvation, crop disasters, famines, war. One of the major challenge in many developing countries is to provide decent drinking water and sanitation to sprawling shanty towns and areas occupied by the urban poor in the cities. In rural area at least the poor can dig wells and take care of the sanitation in their fields.

Water Disputes

Access to drinking water
in the Third World
Scientists and government officials predict that in the coming decades water, not oil, will become the most important resource and the one that holds the greatest potential for conflict. Disputes between countries over water could escalate into war. There has been some discussion of setting up peacekeeping forces to deal with water disputes.

The United Nations has yet to develop a scheme on how to divide the water of major rivers between countries that share it. This applies to the Nile, the Danube, the Euphrates River and others. The greatest potential for conflict involves countries with mountains that are sources of rivers sometimes build dams that prevent water from reaching neighboring countries, which are not comfortable with the fact that source country has the power to cut off or greatly reduce their water supply.

There are political problems and potentials for war if two countries extract water from the same aquifer. None of the numerous treaties on water use cover underground water. There are also conflicts within countries as to who will get water: primarily between industries, cities and farms. Environmental refugees from places with water shortages flock to the rich countries.

Wasted Water and PET Bottles

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irrigation water evaporates
Water is wasted because of bad drainage, water pipes that leak, evaporation from reservoirs and canals, poor irrigation and industrial practices, and lack of wastewater and drinking water treatment.

Bottled water is also a problem: not so much because it wastes water but because it wastes energy and money. Even in the developing world, people are becoming increasingly dependent on bottled water from private companies rather than developing public water systems. In some cases the poor spend a large percentage of their income on water from private source for water that should come virtually free from the tap. In some cases residents of slums in pay four times for water what Americans pay.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles make up about 0.25 percent of total worldwide oil consumption. One bottle is made of 24 grams of ethylene and paraxylene, both chemicals derived from crude oil. The biggest waste of energy is not the oil used to make the bottles as much as it is the energy costs of moving all this water great distances when water that is just as good is available for 1/10,000th the price from the tap. Many bottles end up as litter.

Polluted Water

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People often bathe, wash their clothes and swim in disgusting water. They often drink water of dubious quality obtained from ponds and streams used by animals.

Agriculture-related water pollution comes from fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, animal waste, salts from evaporated irrigation water, and silt from deforestation that wash into streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea. Agricultural runoff is sometimes so severe it creates “dead zones” in coastal water zones.

Industry-related water pollution comes from toxic chemicals and heavy metals from manufacturing and mining. Power plant emissions create acid rain which contaminates surface water.

Much of the pollution in rural areas is caused by untreated sewage resulting from a lack of toilets and sewers; salts, fertilizers and pesticides from irrigated land that contaminates flowing water and groundwater supplies; and salt water entering overused aquifers. Places with sewers often have no waste-water treatment facilities and sewage is dumped directly into water supplies from which people draw their water.

The air and water around the cities is polluted but the rural areas are so vast pollution nationwide is not a big problem.

Water Shortages

Many countries face serious water shortages, with the root of the problem being not so much shortages of water but overpopulation in places that are not really fit for human habitation. Water shortages are often local problems rather than national ones. Shortages are worse in places where there is little water or rain and lots of people.

Water tables are falling almost everywhere. Repeated drilling and well building has caused the water table to drop in some places by as much as six feet a year. Rich countries can compensate for shortages in some areas by building dams, importing food, tapping deep water aquifers, recycling wastewater, desalinated seawater. Poor countries are generally unable to do these things.

The shortage of water is a big problem in many cities. Water is sometimes turned on only a couple of times a day for about a half hour each time. People with money have special storage tanks to collect water during those times, which in turn allows them to have water around the clock. People without storage tanks collect water in jugs and buckets and often have to take bucket baths when the water is not turned on.

Global warming could make water shortages worse in some places and create water shortages in other places.

Solutions to Water Problems

hand pump
One of the goals of planners is took keep water cheap enough so that the poor can get what they need but have water prices high enough so that people do’swaste it. In many places water is subsidized, and the cheap prices encourage people to waste it. The obvious solution here is to end subsidies so that water is’swasted.

Reusing and recycling water is a solution. It is estimated that some cities can meet a fifth of their water needs by recycling water. Worldwide, two thirds of urban water does’seven get treated. Systems that treat and reuse wastewater are often the least costly and most efficient way to clean water but they have difficulty overcoming the aversion that many people have to drinking water derived from sewage.

Ultraviolet radiation is a popular means of disinfecting water but is less effective when the water contains sediments and sludge. In places where water is collected from dirty ponds and lakes, people have learned to clean the water by folding clean cloths several times, placing them over a jug, and pouring water through it. The cloth filters many kinds of disease-causing organisms.

Aids workers advise women to filter water through sari fabric folded over at least four times. In Bangladesh people have learned to clean dirty water taken from ponds and lakes by folding clean sari cloth over several times, placing it over a jug, and pouring thy water through it. The cloth filters many kinds of disease-causing organisms.

Manual pump in Somalia
Women in Bangladesh have traditionally filtered surface water through a piece of cotton but this method only removes course debris. The best way to employ this method is fold the cloth to four or eight thickneses and wash and sun dry the cloth after each flitering. This method is good enough to remove all the zooplankton that carries diseases such as cholera.

There are major disagreement between agriculturalists and environmentalists on how available water should be managed. Water experts say that progress made in cleaning water and making it available at cheap prices has only encouraged more people waste it.

Water Conservation

Some old tried and true methods are being brought back such as harvesting, transporting and storing rain water. In some cases these technologies are being revived because modern technology has not supplied all the answers. System that use catchments, gutters and other channels, storage tanks and gravity or pump driven delivery systems, for example, are cheaper or at least equal in cost to drilling and building a well.

Raised ridges up to 10 meters wide are alternated with shallow canals to channel water, either harvested rain or deviated river water. This not only helps to water crops but also stores heat and keeps the fields warm on cold nights.

Water-Extracting Methods and Low-Tech Water Technology

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Pumping water in Jukwa Village, Ghana
Low-tech technologies used to collect water in arid regions include: 1) fine mesh “fog catching” nets stretched between poles that collect usable water from fog; 2) “rooftop harvesting” using pipes that divert rain from rooftops into a cistern; and 3) desalination cones placed in saltwater. With the latter sun evaporates water, which condenses on the cones inner wall and trickles down into collection areas around the bottom edges.

Water can be conserved by repairing leaky pipes, lining irrigation ditches to prevent leakage, covering irrigation ditches to prevent evaporation, using water-saving technology, and reducing water intensive crops like rice, cotton and sugar cane. Scientists have experimented with collecting dew with miles of nylon filament.

Among the low-tech water technology used to provide water and make it safe are: 1) filtration straws that trap disease-causing bacteria allowing people to safely drink untreated water (already over two million especially use such straws, which cost about $3 each, See LifeStraw,); 2) folding fine-weave clothing like an old sari four times to filter out pathogens like the cholera-causing bacteria; and 3) bamboo treadle pumps made up of inexpensive local materials that help farmers tap ground water to irrigate small plots of land.

Efforts to Bring Clean Water to Villages

Reporting from southern Ethiopia, Tina Rosenberg wrote in National Geographic, “Today a U.K.-based international nonprofit organization called WaterAid, one of the world's largest water-and-sanitation charities, is tackling the job of bringing water to the most forgotten villages of Konso. At the time of my visit, Water-Aid had repaired five projects and set up committees in those villages to manage them, and it was working to revive three others. At the health center in Konso's capital, it was installing gutters on the sloped roofs of the buildings to conduct rainwater to a covered tank. The water is now being treated and used in the health center. [Source: Tina Rosenberg, National Geographic, April 2010]

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tube wells plans
WaterAid is also working in villages like Foro, where no one has successfully brought water before. Their approach combines technologies proven to last’such as building a sand dam to capture and filter rainwater that would otherwise drain away---with new ideas like installing toilets that also generate methane gas for a new communal kitchen. But the real innovation is that WaterAid treats technology as only part of the solution. Just as important is involving the local community in designing, building, and maintaining new water projects. Before beginning any project, WaterAid asks the community to form a WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) committee of seven people---four of whom must be women. The committee works with WaterAid to plan projects and involve the village in construction. Then it maintains and runs the project.

The people of Konso, who grow their crops on terraces they have painstakingly dug into the sides of mountains, are famous for hard work, and they are an asset---one of Konso's few---in the quest for water. In the village of Orbesho, residents even built a road themselves so that drilling machinery could come in. Last summer their pump, installed by the river, was being motorized to push its water to a newly built reservoir on top of a nearby mountain. From there, gravity would pipe it down to villages on the other side of the mountain. Residents of those villages had contributed a few cents apiece to help fund the project, made concrete, and collected stones for the structures, and now they were digging trenches to lay pipes.

From a distance they looked like a riotously colored snake: 200 people, mostly women in rainbow-striped peplum skirts and red or green T-shirts, forming a wavy line up the side of the mountain from the pump to the reservoir. Some men were helping lay fat pipes in the trench. The scene was almost festive with the taste of progress. Hundreds of people had come every day for four days to spend their mornings digging. The trench was about half finished, and each day the snake moved farther up the mountain.

The Konso villagers own and control their pumps. Elected committees set fees, which cover maintenance. No one seeks to recoup the installation costs or to make a profit. Villagers told me that, after a few weeks, they realized paying a penny per jerry can is actually cheap, far less than what they were paying through the hours spent hauling water---and the time, money, and lives lost to disease.

Problems with Village Water Projects

Tina Rosenberg wrote in National Geographic, “Yet in many poor nations, vast numbers of villages where wells are feasible do not have them. Boring deep holes requires geological know-how and expensive heavy machinery. Water in many countries, as in Ethiopia, is the responsibility of each district, and these local governments have little expertise or money. "People who live in slums and rural areas with no access to drinking water are the same people who don't have access to politicians," says Paul Faeth, president of Global Water Challenge, a consortium of 24 nongovernmental groups that's based in Washington, D.C. So the effort to make clean water accessible falls largely to charity groups, with mixed success.[Source: Tina Rosenberg, National Geographic, April 2010]

The villages of Konso are littered with the ghosts of water projects past. In Konsos around the developing world, the biggest problem with water schemes is that about half of them fall into disrepair soon after the groups that built them move on. Sometimes technology is used that can't be repaired locally, or spare parts are available only in the capital. But other reasons are achingly trivial: The villagers can't raise money for a three-dollar part or don't trust anyone to make the purchase with their pooled funds. The 2007 survey of Konso found that only nine projects out of 35 built were functioning.

Cross section of dry zone Catena of Sri Lanka

Privatizing Water

Many feel the solution to the world’s water problems is privatizing it. Siemens, GE and Dow are among the companies that have realized there is money to be made in water. Much of their focus has been on water treatment and gobbling up companies in this sector in preparation for long term strategies. Many are looking to the Middle East, which is awash in oil money but is lacking in fresh water, and China which also suffers from water shortages and is becoming wealthy enough to pay for big projects.

WaterAid and other successful groups, such as Water.org, CARE, and A Glimmer of Hope, also believe that charging user fees---usually a penny per jerry can or less---is key to sustaining a project. The village WASH committee holds the proceeds to pay for spare parts and repairs.

As it stands the private sector supplies water for only 5 percent of the world’s population. In the mid 1980s, the World Bank pressured governments in Asia and Latin America to privatize and deregulate water and utility services and open them up to the private sector. The results were disastrous. Companies demanded price increases to pay for modernization and expansion. Governments initially went along but public protests causes them to change their minds. Many projects were killed after the companies had already made sizable investments and foreign companies got burned as governments broke their promises with them.

Problems with Privatizing Water

But there is a lot of resistance from users and potential suppliers. Villagers think of water as a gift from God. Should they pay for air too. In some circles there are even calls to make water a human right. Business also has its doubts. Companies say water requires a high initial investment but “the payback period is long, rate of return low and the risks are high.” Companies want assurances from partner governments and possibly the World Bank that they will get a reasonable rate of return to justify long term commitments. One of their primary reservations is that they will invest large amounts hard currency and be paid in worthless, local currency.

Tina Rosenberg wrote in National Geographic, “Water and money have long been an uneasy mixture. Notoriously, in 1999 Bolivia granted a multinational consortium 40-year rights to provide water and sanitation services to the city of Cochabamba. The ensuing protests over high prices eventually drove out the company and brought global attention to the problems of water privatization. Multinational companies brought in to run public water systems for profit have little incentive to hook up faraway rural households or price water so it is affordable to the poor. [Source: Tina Rosenberg, National Geographic, April 2010]

Yet someone has to pay for water. Although water springs from the earth, pipes and pumps, alas, do not. This is why even public utilities charge users for water. And water is often most expensive to provide for those who can least afford it---people in the remote, sparsely populated, drought-stricken villages of the world.

"The key question is, Who decides?" says Global Water Challenge's Faeth. "In Cochabamba nobody was talking to the very poorest. The process was not open to the public." A pump in a rural village, he says, is a different story. "At the local level there is a more direct connection between the people implementing the program and the people getting access to water."

Sanitation and Clean Water Declared “Human Right” by the U.N

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In July 2010, the U.N. General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation a "human right" in a resolution that more than 40 countries including the United States didn't support. The resolution adopted by the 192-member world body expresses deep concern that an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. U.N. anti-poverty goals adopted by world leaders in 2000 call for the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation to be cut in half by 2015. [Source: Associated Press, July 29, 2010]

AP reported: “The non-binding resolution, sponsored by Bolivia, was approved by a vote of 122-0 with 41 abstentions including the United States and many Western nations though Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain and Norway supported it. Bolivia's representative said many rights have been recognized including the rights to health, life, and education. He said the Bolivian government introduced a resolution on the right to adequate water and sanitation because contaminated water causes more than 3.5 million deaths every year - more than any war.

Explaining why the U.S. did’ssupport the resolution, U.S. diplomat John Sammis told the General Assembly that the United States "is deeply committed to finding solutions to our water challenges," but he said the resolution "describes a right to water and sanitation in a way that is not reflective of existing international law."

The resolution calls the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation "a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights." It calls on U.N. member states and international organizations to provide funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries "scale up" efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all people.

On the U.N. Millennium Development Goals of cutting the the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation cut in half by 2015, the latest U.N. assessment on progress toward achieving the goals said that "with half the population of developing regions without sanitation, the 2015 target appears to be out of reach" but it said "the world is on track to meet the drinking water target, though much remains to be done in some regions" especially sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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