Hundreds of millions of people face increased risk of disease and extreme poverty because they lack access to clean water and basic sanitation, a United Nations report warns.
The report, "Water in a Changing World”,
estimates that by 2030, nearly half the world’s population—and as many as 250 million people in Africa—will be living in areas of high "water stress.” In addition, between 74 million and 700 million people in arid and semi-arid places will face water shortages.
Wisely managed water supplies are considered vital to the Millennium Development Goals,
approved by world leaders who gathered at the United Nations in 2000. The eight goals included cutting extreme poverty in half, providing universal primary education, a universal right to healthcare and ensuring a sustainable environment
, all by 2015.
Climate change is causing extreme weather, inevitable flooding and drought, notes Jeffrey Sachs
, PhD, the Columbia economist and professor of health policy and management who is also director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and a special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. "The poor suffer most from environmental damage,” he said, adding that the millennium environmental goal as been "utterly unmet.” Sachs was among presenters at the Unite for Sight
Global Health and Innovation Summit at Yale University April 18-19.
More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Seth Wayne, MD
, an ophthalmologist who heads the eye clinic at a teaching hospital in Ghana, described the ravages of trachoma,
an eye infection that causes pain, scarring and ultimately blindness. Of the country’s 22.7 million population, he said, 2.8 million people are at risk for the disease, and a million need antibiotics to treat it. And he explains trachoma is completely preventable: it is a disease of poverty, of poor sanitation, and simply not having enough water to wash.
When water is scarce and has to be hauled long distances to homes, he said, people tend to use it for drinking and cooking rather than washing. Several speakers and UN documents note that because women are usually responsible for managing the household water supply, scarcity is especially hard on them, and the time they spend carrying it long distances takes away from other duties. Further, the UN reports that almost 80 percent of diseases in developing countries are related to water, and three million people die early deaths as a result.
Some progress has been made. Some 1.6 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water since 1990. But the millennium goal for sanitation will not be met. The Trachoma project in Ghana helped with construction of 11,434 latrines, Dr. Wayne said, but pressing need remains.Lake Chad
, once the sixth largest fresh water lake in the world, illustrates just one example of global water trouble. It once covered more than 10,000 square miles, and now it is only one fifth of its original size. Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, where the water has already disappeared, share this lake. By 2020, some 35 million people will depend on this lake for survival. The UN stresses that international cooperation is needed for restoration efforts.
Sachs urges people not to abandon long term goals even when they are not met. "Don’t roll back,” he said. "Raise the stakes. Global commitments do achieve…We need to keep these goals alive, and hold leaders accountable. It’s our most important tool.”