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Going Without Clean Water

A frozen river leads to a frozen Dragon Lake in Siberia. Photo courtesy NASA.

This post is part of a National Geographic website and news series on global water issues.

When temperatures dropped to one degree Fahrenheit and my pipes froze this week, I was reminded of how lucky we are, under most circumstances, to be able to turn a valve and watch copious amounts of clean water flow into our sinks, showers, toilets, and washing machines.

In the U.S., we use an average of 100 gallons each day for washing, cooking, cleaning, drinking, (and lawn watering).

This doesn’t account for the water that’s required to grow our food, manufacture our computers, or refine the fuels we rely on to drive our cars and keep our homes, and water, warm.

In other parts of the world, nearly 900 million people do not have access to the daily minimum water requirement of 5-13 clean and safe gallons, according to the United Nations (U.N.).

Thirteen gallons of water in the U.S. is enough to flush the average toilet five times, or run the dishwasher once, or take an approximately 10-minute shower. (Learn more with National Geographic’s waterfootprint calculator.)

Courtesy U.N.

Every other year, global water expert Peter Gleick publishes a status report on the world’s biggest water concerns—The World’s Water. In the seventh volume, released in October, Gleick and his research team single out climate change and transboundary water management; global water quality, including threats from sewage, fossil fuels, and hydrological fracking; China’s Dams; and U.S. water policy as potential problem areas.

When I interviewed Gleick about the report at the World Climate Research Programme conference in Denver, he clearly pointed to a lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation facilities as the world’s most alarming water problems.

An estimated 2.5 billion people live without a toilet or safe and sustainable place to take care of business. And a child dies as a result of the water-borne illnesses that arise from poor sanitation every 20 seconds, according to the U.N.

“Every year, more people die from the consequences of unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war,” said Gleick, co-founder and president of the California-based environmental think tank the Pacific Institute.

“What’s most alarming is our continued failure to meet basic water and sanitation needs,” and our failure to meet the Millennium Develop Goals for water, Gleick said.

The Millennium Development Goals are a series of economic development targets set by the U.N. in an effort to alleviate poverty around the world. One of the eight goals is related to environmental sustainability and aims to halve the number of people globally who lack access to adequate and safe drinking water and sanitation.

Quality vs. Quantity

We’re nearing the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium goals, and while we’re more on target with drinking water access, sanitation goals seem “to be out of reach,” according to the U.N.

Courtesy U.N.

But the two go hand in hand. “Water quality is often the lonely stepchild of more extensive work on water quantity and availability, yet some of the most serious water challenges are related to contamination,” World’s Water authors explain. “Indeed, many water-availability problems have, at their root, water quality origins.”

Nearly 80 percent of sewage around the globe is flushed, untreated, directly into lakes, rivers, and oceans, according to a 2010 report from the U.N. Environment Programme and the Pacific Institute.

According to Gleick and his colleagues, there is a large economic cost associated with poor water quality. They write that developing countries with access to clean water and sanitation services experience faster economic growth and fewer economic losses from illness and death.

For every U.S. dollar invested in drinking water and sanitation services, there is a projected $3 to $34 in economic development returns, according to the U.N.

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals related to water could save 322 million working days, or $750 million a year, lost to sickness and $7 billion in health care costs, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute.

As we’ve heard this week and last from reports coming out of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, the world’s water landscape could soon look significantly different, threatening health and food security, and increasing the risk of conflict.

More than 1.4 billion people already live in river basins where the use of water exceeds minimum recharge levels, according to the U.N.

By 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions as a result of unsustainable water use, population growth, and climate change.

Gleick and other water and development experts say we need to keep the channels open for improved education, monitoring, leadership, and enforcement… that we need to ramp up funding for these efforts beyond a frozen, glacial pace. When we turn on the tap, investments in water should flow.

“We haven’t been committing resources or efforts to meet those goals,” Glieck said. “We need to do more.”

(Watch: Why Care About Water?)

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