Water is life-giving. Why Water Access is a Threatened Human Right

Water is life-giving: Water Access as a Human Right

Part II of Health and the Environment Series

by Annika Esau

“Water is the driving force of all nature.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Introduction: Life Flows from Water

In quite a literal sense, water makes life possible. We need to drink it to stay alive and healthy–but we also need water to grow food, practice good hygiene, and cook meals. Without it, the plants we eat and use for materials can’t grow. Without drinking water, we become dehydrated, which causes countless physical and mental medical problems. Without water in the kitchen and bathroom, we can’t wash our hands or our food, and cooking options grow very limited even when there is plenty of water available. If it is contaminated or saline, it may very well be useless or dangerous.

In most of the United States, we don’t have to weigh these concerns. For the most part, water is available whenever and wherever it’s desired, and we can drink straight from sinks–or at least with minimal filtering. Restaurants and public fountains provide free water anywhere you might find yourself. We even have plentiful water for recreation–swimming, gardens, golf courses, and lawns. 

But, of course, this isn’t the case everywhere. In some parts of the US–and many other areas of the world, particularly Northern Africa and Southwestern Asia–water availability is not a given. It may be difficult to obtain, either economically (due to high prices) or physically (due to geographic scarcity). Even when there’s plenty of water to be had, it is often unsanitary. 

In recent years, the number of people around the world without access to safe water has declined. Still, 1.8 billion people use unsafe drinking water, often contaminated with fecal matter. Around 2.7 billion people experience water scarcity during at least one month out of the year. That’s over a quarter of the human population! Many of these people live in Africa, as seen on the map below. Now, Europeans and Americans often have a tendency to think of Africa as “far away” and “wild” and “broken”–but, in fact, we in the Western world are a large part of this problem and are soon to be equally caught up in its effects.

A global map of unimproved drinking water, i.e., unsafe/contaminated drinking water, or very limited water access. This is most prevalent in Africa. Source: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

Water Stress: Its Development and Ramifications

In North America, Southern Europe, and the Middle East, water stress–the ratio of water withdrawal to water supply–is sky-high. Simply put, we consume far more freshwater than our environment can output. This problem may be intuitive; we see egregious wastes of water in our obsession with green lawns and golf, and our highly-manufactured world requires great water consumption to create and sustain. We love to consume, and that includes water! Some countries have access only to contaminated water, while other countries may have access to improved water, but they use more of it than is available.

Areas of Low to High Water Stress
A global map of water stress. North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Eastern Asia are most culpable. Wikipedia (Sampa)

Though powerful efforts have been made to increase water quality and availability, overall scarcity is likely to grow along with economic development. We already see high water stress in countries with high economic development, which is unlikely to change without choosing a more sustainable path. In sub-Saharan Africa, children and disproportionately women can spend 30 to 60 minutes each day collecting clean drinking water from water sources.

Conserving Water can be as simple as not flushing.
A popular slogan for water conservation through selectively flushing the toilet. Toilet flushing is the single biggest use of water in most homes. Source Your Health Forum.

If we fail to move these obstacles and lessen water stress, almost everyone worldwide must deal with the countless issues resulting from limited access to sanitary or potable water. When drinking water is contaminated, it often causes nausea and diarrhea and can also cause deadly conditions such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Even diarrhea–which some may consider as rather inert–kills worldwide around three hundred thousand children under 5 years old every year- about one child every 2 minutes! An estimated 1 million people die yearly from issues related to access to clean water, such as diarrheal and hygiene-related diseases (e.g. trachoma). Some effects of contaminated drinking water are long-term, such as reproductive or neurological problems.

Bringing Clean Water to Homes in Africa can impact productivity and leisure. As many as 3.36 million children and 1.54 million adult females are collecting water in sub-Saharan Africa.
Access to Clean water can require up to an hour a day in some parts of Africa

Similarly, uncontaminated water is essential for hygiene and sanitation: washing hands, face, and body; cleaning cooking facilities and food; and keeping a sanitary waste facility (e.g., a bathroom). Beyond the problems previously mentioned, limited access to good water can result in everything from tooth decay to head lice to blindness (via trachoma). Cleaning overall is difficult without water, and cleaning is necessary to prevent so very many diseases and infections.

There are innumerable indirect issues resulting from scarce or contaminated water, too. Inequalities are often sharpened. Girls may be forced out of school to assist their families in gathering water, or they may become truant at school when they begin menstruating due to inadequate sanitation facilities there. Likewise, the consequences of scarce water disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized. Some individuals have no choice but to use unsanitary communal bathrooms, where they are also at higher risk for assault. Children often have to stay home from school because of gastrointestinal issues or distraction due to dehydration. 

In addition, water is required to grow food (and other products/materials), so scarcity can mean famine and economic decline. Because it is such an essential resource, unequal distribution among communities can cause political tensions and exacerbate inequities. For example, in Somalia, localized conflicts between farmers and herders at times revolve around insecure access to water, and existing tensions grow sharper during dry seasons. In general, water insecurity is a “risk multiplier”: it deepens the risks that exist and creates additional ones. Of course, famine, economic decline, and political instability all can have serious health effects, from stress (and its countless long-term effects of cardiovascular diseases, psychological disorders, etc.) to restricted healthcare. 

The physical state of water–even before being used or consumed–can cause additional health problems. Unclean, stagnant, contaminated water serves as a breeding ground for disease vectors, such as mosquitoes that spread dengue fever. Areas with high levels of unimproved water sources frequently require that people carry heavy water a long distance from the closest source to the home. So, there is a greater risk for physical injury when constantly lifting and carrying such loads. 

Water Conservation: Think Globally. Act Locally

Are there ways in which we can conserve or secure clean water resources? On an individual level, this path may mean conserving toilet and shower water, selecting lawns with native vegetation, and so on. However, on a society-wide level, it may mean recycling wastewater, cutting down the great magnitude of manufacturing, and even developing new technologies such as desalination tools (which could make ocean water potable). These are all much greater obstacles, near-impossible to move on such a high level.

Consider the use of water in your own life. Perhaps you can take more actions to conserve so that the water you don’t need can be used by someone who does. And for your own health, ensure you are drinking and using uncontaminated water. Drinking enough water (3-4 liters daily, depending on many factors) can keep you from fatigue, premature aesthetic skin aging (wrinkling, skin immune function, poor skin health in general), and constipation. It can help you recover from sunburns quickly, flush toxins and bacteria to avoid illness, and even have good breath!

Clearly, water–good, plentiful water–is far more than a useful resource. It is an essential ingredient to life. It plays a role in every facet of our lives and our world, and its every absence is painfully felt in numerous ways. Therefore, we must protect our water and ensure that it is available to all, now and into the future. Access to safe water is a basic human right, and it must be vigorously defended.

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