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One billion people around the world don't have access to clean, safe water. Developed countries have essentially eradicated diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria, but in developing nations, these and other waterborne illnesses kill 5 million people each year -- 6,000 children every day. And global warming is exacerbating this crisis as severe, prolonged droughts dry up water supplies in arid regions and heavy rains cause sewage overflows. In terms of the sheer number of people affected, the lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation is a massive problem. Yet it is a problem with proven solutions.

Safe Water: Keystone of Environment, Health, Economy and Security

ships and whales

photo: Dave Sarr

People who fall ill from waterborne diseases can't work. Women and girls who travel hours to fetch clean water for their families can't go to school or hold on to a job. Without proper sanitation, human waste pollutes waterways and wildlife habitat. Global warming and population pressures are drying up water supplies and instigating conflict over scarce resources. Expanding access to clean water and sanitation will have ripple effects throughout local economies and societies.

Children are particularly vulnerable to waterborne diseases. Their small bodies take in a disproportionately large quantity of water and its contaminants, and their immune systems are not equipped to fight off invaders such as E. coli, giardia and the typhoid bacteria. More than 2 million children are killed by such diarrheal diseases each year, and 90 percent of them are kids under five.

The U.N. estimates that if the proportion of people without access to safe water and basic sanitation were halved, countries around the world would save $7.3 billion per year in health care costs, and the annual global value of adult working days gained because of less illness would be almost $750 million.

Simple Solutions Can Make Water Safer

Simple sanitation improvements, like digging pit latrines and treating drinking water with chlorine, filters and other simple, existing technologies can save millions of lives. The challenge is to put the right strategies to use in the right places, as needs vary from country to country.

The long-term goal is to provide safe sources of treated drinking water and improved sanitation for all. In the meantime, simple, shorter-term strategies can save millions of lives.

Safe Water: How to Get it Done

Safe water is a critical environmental and public health issue, as well as a means to lift people out of poverty and ensure human security. Yet the number of people without safe water is increasing. Water supply and sanitation programs can't be developed in isolation from other development issues. Global warming is affecting water supplies, creating shifts in agriculture and where people live. AIDS patients especially need access to clean water so they don't fall ill from common waterborne germs that healthy adults can fend off. Integrating safe water programs into larger development strategies often involves complex, many-sided reforms, which requires high-level coordination and firm political will to get the job done.

The United Nations included safe water in its Millennium Development goals, with the intention of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

In 2005, realizing the severity of the safe water and sanitation crisis, Congress passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act; however it has not been fully implemented or fully funded, and over six years later, the State Department still has not produced the comprehensive water strategy required by the Act. New legislation -- the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act -- has been introduced in both the House and the Senate; this legislation would improve and facilitate the implementation of the Water for the Poor Act, solidifying higher level positions in the U.S. Administration for handling these issues, and encouraging collaboration between those working on water and sanitation issues, and those working on environmental, public health, education, gender and other issues.

Providing safe water is an essential step for human health and development. Global awareness of this issue is rising, but our leaders need to take concrete action in order to solve this crisis in the next decade. By encouraging leadership and generating momentum for solutions, we can save millions of lives.

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