More than 1 billion people around the world consume unsafe
drinking water and every year 3.4 million people--mostly children--die
due to water-related illnesses, according to a report from the
World Health Organization (news - web sites) (WHO) released
on Wednesday to coincide with World Water Day on March 22. ``Much
of the suffering is needless,'' says Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland,
director-general of the WHO, in the preface to a new report.
``Most of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented through
simple, inexpensive measures,'' she adds. People in the developing
world are particularly at risk for water-borne diseases.
About 2.2 million people die of diarrhea caused by drinking
contaminated water and 90% of those deaths are among children.
``Diarrhea can be reduced by 26% when basic water, hygiene and
sanitation are supplied,'' the report states. ``Yet...40% of
world's 6 billion people have no acceptable means of sanitation,
and more than 1 billion people draw their water from unsafe
sources,'' according to the WHO. Improving drinking water supplies
requires a huge investment globally, but the funds have not
kept pace with the need, according to Terrance Thompson, regional
advisor for water, sanitation and health at the WHO in New Delhi.
``According to estimates globally, (a) $23 billion investment
is needed annually to meet the international targets of water
and sanitation services by 2015, but our studies show that in
the last decade, the actual investment has been only $16 billion
per year,'' Thompson told Reuters Health. ``In contrast, it
has been calculated that in Europe alone expenditure on ice
cream is $11 billion per year, and Europe and US combined spend
some $17 billion annually on pet food,'' Thompson told Reuters
``The bill for purchase of alcoholic drinks in Europe is estimated
to reach $105 billion per year,'' Thompson added. ``Waiting
for new projects to come is no longer an acceptable option because
the health impact of inadequate water and sanitation services,
together with poor water-resource management, has already reached
unacceptable proportions,'' Poonam Khetrapal Singh, deputy regional
advisor of WHO in the South East Asia Region, told Reuters Health.
``Without new approaches, the situation will worsen,'' Singh
cautioned. WHO is now advocating low-cost technological solutions,
such as chlorination of water, solar water disinfection, and
changing behavior to reduce the risk. Solar water disinfection,
promoted by Swiss Institute for Environmental Science and Technology
(SIEST), involves keeping transparent water-filled bottles horizontally
on a flat surface, preferably black, for about 5 hours in sunlight
so that ultraviolet rays kill the harmful microorganisms.
``Solar water disinfection is a nearly cost-free system because
sunlight costs nothing, and the only other elements are throw
away plastic bottles and a black surface,'' explained SIEST
researcher Martin Wegelin. Behavior change can be very effective
in reducing the incidence of water-related diseases, the WHO
points out. Studies by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine show that the simple act of washing one's hands with
soap and water can reduce the incidence of diarrhea by 35%.