Unsafe water and poor sanitation kill more young children annually than malaria, AIDS and accidents combined. With climate change introducing new hazards and major threats to health and development, we are left no option but to respond.
The world is in the throes of an unprecedented water crisis. Water scarcity is a world-wide reality that places vital infrastructure, services, and health at risk. Conflict over water has been rapidly escalating, putting even more strain on some of the world’s most fragile states. The impacts of projected climate change will multiply the challenge in coming years.
The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation estimates that 884 million people do not use an improved source of drinking water, 37 percent of whom live in sub–Saharan Africa.
Only half the world’s households have water at home and 2.6 billion people do not use improved sanitation. This crisis has profound implications for health. There are 2.2 million deaths every year from diarrheal disease. Unsafe drinking water and inadequate facilities cause 1.8 million of these preventable deaths a year - 90 percent of them are children under five. Health care needs and costs increase with lack of clean water and sanitation facilities. Illness drains family resources as work days and educational opportunities are missed due to illness. Millions of women and young girls are forced to spend hours collecting and carrying water, restricting their life opportunities and choices. Water-borne infectious diseases are holding back economic growth in the world’s poorest countries. No other single intervention is likely to reduce global poverty more than the provision of safe water and sanitation.
In industrialized nations, the public and policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the risks of aging infrastructure as demand rapidly outstrips available water resources. In the US and Europe, reports of outbreaks of water-related diseases have shaken long-standing public confidence in the reliability and safety of basic services. The persistent diseases of underdevelopment are now accompanied by modern hazards and emerging diseases of critical relevance to all nations, regardless of their state of development.
The reasons for the crisis are diverse – natural forces exacerbated by human activity; failure in policy and financing for development; poor sustainability driven by inadequate micro- and macro-business models; and insufficient innovation to find the economic, social, and technological solutions needed in today's complex and interconnected world.
Public health is profoundly affected. Health systems hold some of the keys to mounting an effective response, but the health sector cannot act alone - it is most successful when combining direct action with change leveraged from other sectors. Three of the most critical gaps in responding to the water challenge are:
- The gross shortfall in trained professionals, especially in the developing world;
- A series of critical knowledge gaps spanning policy, management, practice and technology; and
- Limited opportunity to access and share the relevant and usable information needed by key decision makers and service providers in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.
The Water Institute at UNC is our response.