It is easy to take clean, accessible, and abundant running water for granted. Most Americans do not have to worry about where and how they will obtain water for survival. We use water liberally to drink, shower, feed, flush, wash, and clean.
Most of the developing world does not share these same luxuries. Nine hundred million people around the world do not have adequate access to potable drinking water, with approximately 2.6 billion people lacking basic sanitation systems. Nearly 20 million people worldwide die each year of waterborne diseases. Approximately one-half of all of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from diseases associated with lack of access to potable water, poor sanitation, and inadequate hygiene.
It is of critical importance to address the consequences, but more importantly the root causes of not having safe water or sanitation.
Waterborne disease: problems and consequences
Waterborne diseases are illnesses caused by drinking water contaminated typically by human or animal feces that enter the water along different paths. Waterborne diseases are caused by pathogenic microorganisms – viruses, bacteria, protozoa, or intestinal parasites. Drinking contaminated water and preparing contaminated food is the most common way for a person to acquire serious pathogens that can cause waterborne diseases such as cholera, giardia, e. coli 0157:H7, hepatitis A, salmonella, norovirus, and typhoid fever.
Unfortunately, children are the most affected part of the population. Ninety percent of diarrheal disease deaths are children under five years old in developing countries. Each day, 6,000 children worldwide die of water-related diseases. To put that into perspective, that is more than the number of children who die from Tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS combined each day.
Diarrhea that is caused by waterborne diseases is particularly dangerous for children because it depletes nutrients and fluids in the body necessary for growth. This depletion of electrolytes and essential minerals, along with the body’s vulnerability and inability to combat new infections, can be detrimental if not deadly.
For the lucky few who do survive, the effects of waterborne diseases can cause children to be absent from school and lose educational opportunities. Unfortunately in many cases, without adequate medication, knowledge, or access to health care, many waterborne disease cases can eventually lead to death.
The effects of waterborne diseases in the adult population are far-reaching. Local economies are negatively impacted by contaminated water. Community and household budgets are burdened by the expensive cost of drugs to combat the effects of waterborne diseases. Financial losses increase due to drug cost, hospital treatment, and loss of productivity and hours working.
Water issues do not affect everyone equally
The search for potable water is an important issue for women and girls, as they often figuratively and literally carry the burden of finding water in a given community.
In addition to walking up to five miles each day to obtain water, which is many times contaminated, the heavy weight that these women balance on their heads often leads to many musculoskeletal problems including cervical neck problems and lumbar spine fractures.
An average rural girl in Sub-Saharan Africa will spend approximately three hours each day fetching water for her entire life. This commitment deprives the female population of educational, economic, and social opportunities.
Due to girls withdrawing from school early, many young women in developing areas are marrying between ages twelve and sixteen years old. These various losses prevent women from harnessing their full potential.
Possible solutions to address the problem
Although the world water crisis is a multifaceted issue, specifically addressing waterborne diseases is crucial. What can be done to prevent millions of deaths each year from contaminated water? So far, the main focus of NGOs, organizations, and governments has been to attack the issue by addressing access to clean water. Sufficient access to clean water is undoubtedly a necessity for reducing waterborne diseases.
There are a number of charities and organizations dedicated to solving the problem of waterborne diseases. Proctor and Gamble recently developed a water purification technology in the form of a powder. The powder product called “PUR packet” is mixed into potentially contaminated water and rapidly converts it to clean drinkable water. According to Proctor and Gamble, this water purification system eliminates 99.99% of common waterborne viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. It is so effective that The Economist has recognized the product as one of the world’s most impactful innovations.
UC Berkeley professor Ashok Gadgil developed another innovative purification system, UV waterworks, which utilizes ultraviolet (UV) light to disinfect drinking water. The UV light kills disease-causing microorganisms by disrupting the chemical bonding between nucleotides in their DNA thus destroying the microorganism by halting growth and reproduction. This intricate and high-tech system reduces the cost of drinking water to two cents per twelve liters of water, thereby increasing affordability to people whose incomes are less than $1 per day. This type of purification makes clean water accessible and economical to poor rural communities in developing countries.
The WATERisLIFE organization developed a straw that makes water drinkable from any source no matter how tainted. When water is sipped through the straw, it passes through an iodine chamber that disinfects the water by rupturing the bacterial cell membranes. Next, the water travels through “…membranes, iodized crystals, and active carbon, all of which removes the micron sized bacteria and viruses as well as bad tastes”. The device can be worn around the neck and does not require any form of electricity or spare parts.
Why sustainability is important
The previous solutions to combat waterborne diseases are all invaluable. However, each solution is not sustainable in the long-run. Proctor and Gamble’s water purification system is revolutionary and cheap, but it cannot be consistently maintained for populations in need. The PUR packet makes citizens in affected countries dependent on Proctor and Gamble’s solution. Due to community reliance on the packets, there is a lack of community ownership.
Dr. Ashok Gadgil’s invention was a humanitarian and altruistic gift. However, the system he constructed is technologically complex for the typically resource-poor settings where it is most needed. In addition, it requires a fuel source to power the UV light source. When a system breaks or needs repairs, there is no way for a rural community to fix the disinfecting source. The device also requires oil, gasoline, or electricity for power, all resources that a community may lack.
The same idea applies to the WATERisLIFE straw. Despite the device’s success at eliminating pathogens, it had been criticized and condemned by various NGOs and non-profit organizations for its high price in the developing world. Furthermore, the device does not address the root cause of the water contamination and the filter within the straw has a finite life. Although the intentions of many organizations and individuals are well-meaning, most traditional approaches to global water problems are outdated, ineffective and unsustainable.
Therefore, the answer to combating waterborne diseases sustainably is to use “smart solutions.” Next week, we will discuss what these smart solutions look like and how they can be implemented in communities around the world.