When the Millennium Development Goals were released in September 2000, the United Nations gave the world just fifteen years to eradicate some of the worst problems facing humanity. Eradicate extreme poverty. Achieve universal primary education. Ensure environmental sustainability. Within the latter goal is Target 7.C: to cut in half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. While this optimistic statement provided hope for immediate global change, the likelihood of actually achieving it seemed somewhat meek. On World Water Day held on March 22, 2012, this goal, against all odds, was achieved. The question moving forth, however, is if this goal is sustainable.
Water has quickly become the world’s most valuable resource. Three quarters of the planet is covered with water. Only three percent of that is consumable freshwater. Of that three percent, 99.9% is frozen in glaciers and ice fields, or underground. The remaining fraction of freshwater must then be divided among the world’s growing population, which has now passed seven billion people.
Water is a necessity of life. Neither humanity nor our ecosystems can survive without it. The maintenance and sanitation of freshwater resources is also essential, and remains a significant threat to human health. Water pollution, dam construction, irrigation development, and flood control all cause the spread of preventable diseases through water consumption. Diarrheal disease (more commonly known as diarrhea), for example, is responsible for 4.1% of the global burden of disease, and kills an estimated 1.8 million people per year. 88% of this disease is related to the consumption of unsafe drinking water. As well, new concerns are now emerging associated with the consumption of contaminated water. A recent study released by the World Health Organization, for instance, expresses concerns of low levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water that pose threats to the safety of human health.
Access to water is also a cause of armed conflict. A lack of water supply has resulted in bombings and other terrorist attacks, as well as protests in many regions, most recently in parts of India, Pakistan, China, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Further, it has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced persons searching for increased access to consumable water. A refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya is just one example and is currently housing 160,000 Somali refugees looking for water. Currently 1.2 billion people are living in areas of physical water scarcity, a number that is only expected to rise. By 2030, it is expected that 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas with an extreme lack of freshwater access.
Although Target 7.C has now technically been achieved, I believe it would be a grave oversight to consider access to water and sanitation no longer a huge threat to humanity. Even the World Health Organization’s 2004 report – which gives an update on the status of access to water since the MDG was initiated – acknowledges that the statistics on access can be misleading. When this report was published, 83% of the world had water coverage, meaning that we were on target to meet the goal of access to water prior to 2015 (which has now officially been achieved in 2012). The goal on sanitation, however, is a more difficult task, as there still remained in 2004 2.6 billion people without improved sanitation facilities. The rates of improvement also vary greatly per region, skewing the overall statistics. For example, between 1990 and 2002, South Asia was showing impressive growth of coverage, going from 71 to 84 percent. This jump though was mainly fueled by India with a population of over 1 billion. When this increase then gets factored into overall global improvement, it will make a huge difference in the statistics, since India holds such a large percentage of the world’s population. It is not, however, a good representation of improvement to global coverage. How then does this apply to our current situation? Even though we have halved the proportion of people without access, we must still consider that there are many concentrated areas suffering from extremely low levels of access to water.
Despite global increases in coverage, it is vital to consider the quality of water to which we are gaining access. In the developing world, water access is provided through the drilling of wells, and utilizes underground water resources. My immediate thought when I consider this strategy is about an orphanage I worked in outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The orphanage had a well, which served as the primary source of water for all the children. I would play with the kids regularly and would constantly wonder about white scabs and markings on their heads. When I finally asked the orphanage director, he said it was from water-born diseases. While statistically these children had access to freshwater, their consumption of it was only hindering their health and potentially putting their lives at risk. So even though achieving Target 7.C on paper may seem impressive, I approach it with great skepticism.
It is uplifting to hear that we have achieved at least one MDG on time, but the longevity of this achievement is uncertain. In the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon’s address on this achievement, he focuses on the question of sustainability. He states that unless we can learn to use water wisely, specifically in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and will face bigger threats such as those of illness, drought, and famine. Even though we have made unbelievable improvements to water access in many regions, 800 million people still remain without access. It is essential that we do not stop strategizing long-term solutions for providing safe water resources that are sustainable and can carry our world’s population well into the future.
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