Water Scarcity & Sanitation

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by Shannyn Snyder

Freely-flowing water from the Oshiwara River in Mumbai, India may appear to be a positive sign that the city has not yet been hard hit by the country's staggering water crisis which has been driven by drastic escalation in urban population and has caused unprecedented demand on water. In fact, by 2050, India's population is expected to overtake China's current census numbers. Add climate change and increased agriculture to the mix, and India's water crisis may soon lead to epidemic health concerns.

But what about the free-flowing river?

Unfortunately, water scarcity is not just a water availability problem but also one related to water quality. In order for water to be safe for human consumption or use, water must be potable. Potable water, or water that is free of impurities, pollution and bacteria, seldom exists naturally, such as in glacial waters.

In fact, in July 2003, a SoClean study found that a significant portion of water in Mumbai was contaminated by fecal coliform ("fc") or bacteria from human waste. Contamination was significant at 1600 fecal coliform per 100 ml of water. Safety norms in India have set a limit of 10 fc per 100 ml (although the World Health Organizations say that no fc should exist in potable water), obviously making this a significant public health concern in the city. That is, even though Mumbai had a good water supply, it was deemed unfit for use. It may be also be surprising to note that a major portion of the contaminated water was found in middle-class dwelling sites, demonstrating that sanitation issues are not just a symptom of poverty.

While over a billion people lack access to water, the WHO reports that over 2.6 billion people lack proper sanitation, which can lead to a host of diseases and illnesses, such as hepatitis and cholera, and this problem is alarmingly wide-scale. For example, approximately 50% of Sub-Sahara Africa lacks adequate sanitation, approximately 25% of Latin American countries fall short of proper sanitation, and even the U.S. has various sanitation concerns, particularly in urban areas. Across the board, sanitation issues range from a) basic sanitation or the management of human waste from households, b) on-site sanitation or disposal of sanitation at sites, c) food sanitation or ensuring safe food handling before distribution, d) environmental sanitation or effective planning for wastewater or contaminants and e) ecological sanitation or natural recycling.

International governments, NGOs and communities are making some effort to address sanitation issues but not fast enough. It's an expensive task and consistently changing. Globalization, population, climate change, migration, challenges in agriculture, water privatization and other water scarcity factors are all taxing existing sanitation. Regions such as Northeast Brazil and urban Thailand simply can't "set up shop" fast enough. Too many people, too much waste, no place to put it, and large-scale solutions take time, money and site evaluation, and once facilities are in place, it takes more time and money to maintain them, and there are many examples. "Our latrines at a [refugee camp in Ghana,]" said Elizabeth Murdock, a volunteer for WISE, "had to be closed for some time because the [UNHCR] didn't have a plan for sanitation and anyone who used the bathrooms got sick." There were simply too many people and no initial plans for adequate waste disposal.

The WHO, which named 2008 the Year of Sanitation, suggests that sanitation solutions can be simple, and efforts are being made to provide public health education to both urban and rural areas worldwide to teach families about pit toilets, composting, hand washing, wastewater management and water purification.

So, it may surprise you that more than 1 in 3 people worldwide lack adequate sanitation, a problem that spans demographic variables of race, income-level and geographic areas, and by 2015 continued increases in urban populations will mean that tens of millions of people will die simply because they have no place to put their waste. Therefore, global outreach for water availability must go hand-in-hand with plans for adequate sanitation and public health education. For more information regarding some of these efforts, please see the U.N.'s site on sanitation development.

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