The Guardian 23 November, 2005

World water crisis

Raisa Pages

The 21st century has begun with a serious water crisis. Under the worst-case scenario, experts estimate that seven billion people in 60 countries will incur a shortage of water by the middle of this century. Under the best-case scenario, the shortage will affect around two billion people in 48 countries.


With the rate of demographic growth and economic development, demand on the continent’s hydrologic system is increasing. Recent calculations suggest that climatic change will be responsible for an approximately 20 percent reduction in water resources.

Another factor that is responsible for a reduction in fresh water resources is pollution. On a daily basis, some two million tonnes of waste, such as industrial residue, chemicals, human and agricultural waste (fertilizers, pesticides, and their residues) are dumped into water outlets.

Global production of sewage is approximately 1,500 cubic kilometres. If a litre of that sewage contaminates eight litres of fresh water, the world’s pollution levels could rise to 12,000 km3, although UN experts clarified that reliable data on the extent and seriousness of the pollution is incomplete.

As always, the worst affected are the poorest populations. Fifty percent of the populations of developing countries are exposed to sources of polluted water. Illnesses related to drinking polluted water are one of the most common causes of illness and death, mainly in Third World nations.

Diseases transmitted by water, such as gastrointestinal illnesses, are caused by drinking polluted water. Other complaints, for example malaria or schistosomiasis, are transmitted through carriers such as insects or snails, which reproduce in aquatic ecosystems.

In 2000, around 2,213,000 people died from diarrhoea-related illnesses caused by a lack of sanitary and hygienic systems. According to a study, malaria causes one million human deaths every year.

More than two billion people were infected with schistosomiasis and helminthiasis, both transmitted by soil, and 300 million of them went on to suffer from serious sickness, according to studies by the World Health Organisation.

Lack of water that is necessary for a people’s basic hygiene is the cause of bacteria and parasites that adhere to the skin, such as scabies.

The most tragic aspect is that the majority of deaths and illness are among children under five years of age. Resistance to insecticides undermines the effectiveness of programs aimed at controlling the disease carriers. A similar process is occurring with the medicines used to attack the bacteria and parasites.

Currently, 1.1 billion people lack the necessary infrastructure to obtain water and 2.4 billion do not have access to sanitary systems. If water and basic sanitation services were provided to populations who do not have them, it is estimated that the number of infectious diarrhoea cases would reduce by 17 percent annually.

Poverty and privatisation

However, the current international economic system, in which inequality prevails, does not enable the poor to have access to those services because they live in countries whose governments do not prioritise the welfare of their populations.

On the contrary, many nations have privatised their water resources, which is only accentuating the effects of the water shortages.

In Asia, the most densely populated area in the world, 65 percent of the population lacks water services and 80 percent lacks sanitary systems. In Africa, the figures are 27 percent and 13 percent respectively; Latin America and the Caribbean reports six percent and five percent while in Europe access to water and sanitary systems is increasing by two percent according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Control Program updated in September, 2002.

The percentages are higher in Asia, although the population groups are larger in Africa, due to the demographic difference between the two continents. There are no figures for North America in this report.

Water and disasters

Between 1991 and 2000, the number of victims of various natural disasters increased from 147 to 211 million per year. During that period, more than 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters, of which more than 90 percent were water related. Asia and Africa are the worst affected continents.

Among all types of natural disasters, droughts were responsible for 42 percent of human deaths. Floods were responsible for 50 percent, and of those 28 percent were killed by illnesses derived from contaminated water and disease carriers were responsible for 28 percent of deaths. But the most tragic fact is that around 97 percent of all the deaths have occurred in developing countries.

In Cuba, the current drought has not caused any loss of human life, due to the economic-social system that prioritises the needs of the population. A special group, attached to the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers has been established to address the situation. In this way financial resources are invested in places where the water shortages are the most serious.

Cuba’s civil defence system, responsible for responding to natural disasters, has been praised by the UN and is considered a model for other developing nations.

Political will and a social system where justice prevails are the fundamental means by which humanity can confront the present water crisis.

Granma International
(This article was first published before the recent hurricanes.)


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