Within the next forty-five years, the world population is estimated to increase by 2.6 billion people and the bulk of this increase will occur in areas that are the least developed. This population growth, coupled with continued industrialization and urbanization of developing countries, will result in a heightened demand for water and an increase in polluted water, both of which will have serious adverse consequences on the environment.
Sadly, the availability of clean water in many underdeveloped areas of the world is extremely scarce as once dependable rainfall patterns are failing to replenish the local water table. The United Nations estimates that in 2005, 1.1 billion people (20% of the global population) lacked access to safe, affordable, drinking water, and 2.6 billion people (40% of the global population) lacked access to safe sanitation. About 80% of those lacking such access live in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia and Southern Asia. Without creative solutions to increase the availability of clean water, these impoverished communities around the world will continue to languish.
Water-related diseases are one of the most devastating consequences resulting from a pervasive lack of clean water, destroying not only lives but also local economies. In 2004 alone, 2.2 million people died due to unsafe drinking water, most of which were children under the age of 5. This amounts to around 6,000 deaths a day. In addition, it is estimated that 50% of all hospital beds in the developing world are currently occupied by patients with diarrheal illness as a result of exposure to contaminated water. If the world does not act to provide basic access to clean water, as many as 135 million additional people will die from these water-related diseases by 2020. On top of the massive death toll, local economies and household budgets are drained by the constant need to purchase expensive medicines in order to combat the effects of consuming polluted water.
The solution to ending the cycle of poverty and disease in these impoverished communities is crystal clear: investment in the creation and strengthening of basic sanitation infrastructures to provide access to clean water. Improving sanitation infrastructure in these impoverished communities could reduce diarrhea-related deaths in young children by more than one-third and if hygiene promotion is added, such as simply teaching proper hand washing, deaths could be reduced by two thirds. Access to water must be a human right that all can enjoy and yet globally, it does not exist.
The lack of available clean water has other detrimental social consequences as well. Without the basic availability of toilets and in order to maintain their social dignity, women are forced to defecate only in secluded areas at night, making them susceptible to violence.
Furthermore, in the rural areas of many developing countries, women and children are not able to acquire an elementary education because they are required to provide water each day to their family or village. This can mean up to a 5-mile walk, one way, only to arrive at a river, pond or stream contaminated with bacteria. Furthermore, the containers used to transport water usually hold about 15 liters of water and weigh up to 15 kilograms. Such a physically difficult and time consuming responsibility means that these women and children are not able to go to school due to fatigue or simply because they are not afforded the time.
In addition, many young women in these areas are marrying between the ages of 12 and 16 years. By keeping these women in school, they can become educated and potentially avoid marrying at such a young age. This ultimately benefits the local community as older, more educated women might opt for smaller, more economically manageable family sizes resulting in more moderate population growth and less pressure on available resources. As surprising as it sounds, these positive changes all start with providing clean water to these families and their children so they can sustain safe and healthy lives and have the time and the strength to start and finish school.