By Hannah Kim

Throughout the last leg of her jaunt around the world before turning 30, my sister Esther—who globe-trotted to India, Morocco, and finally to Australia this summer before returning to Washington, DC—was advised: “Don’t drink the water, unless you want to get sick.” Water is indeed one of the leading sources of health problems for international travelers, who may suffer anything from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to serious bacterial infections from drinking the wrong kind. Nothing ruins a good trip like an illness, so my sister drank strictly from water bottles, except while she was staying at her friend’s house in Sydney. Even then, she boiled her water, despite the fact Australia is actually one of the world’s safest places to drink tap water.

In many cases, travelers (often from developed countries) simply become sick because the bacteria in the water are foreign to their gastrointestinal systems (while locals may appear to have established tolerance to the organisms, under-reporting of incidences may skew that perspective). Yet in sobering reality, 884 million people in the world, or approximately one in eight people (almost all of them in developing regions) do not have access to clean water, according to the 2010 WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme Report on the Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over a third of those regions without access to clean water, and is lagging behind in meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goal target that calls on countries to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water. Even after an 11-percent increase in two decades, only 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africans use improved sources of drinking water. There is a growing disparity in the access to water even within more developed countries such as Morocco—a mere 60 percent of the rural population have access to safe drinking water—in stark contrast with 98 percent of the urban population. While nearly all urbanites may enjoy safe water, on average, 19 percent of the 35 million Moroccans do not.

Lack of access to clean water translates to nearly 3.6 million deaths each year from water-related disease. Diarrheal disease remains the second leading cause of death globally among children under five, killing more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Close to 3.6 million Pakistani children are currently vulnerable to deadly waterborne infections in the flood-ravaged country, as are 40 percent of Haitian children, whose risks have been elevated by the recent devastating earthquake. Simply put, the price we pay for not treating contaminated water is death of a precious child every 20 seconds, or a loss of $3.6 billion (USD) a year, which can be averted should proper solutions be enacted. Loïc Fauchon, President of the World Water Council, proclaimed that the UN General Assembly’s recent declaration of water as a human right is, “an important milestone on the long road to access to water for all.” It will undoubtedly entail “hundreds, and thousands of solutions for water, that the right to water will become reality.” And these solutions, which are not all as simple as digging a well or handing out water bottles, must address our current water challenges that exceed the scope of quantity or quality.

Is water available for all?
Marq de Villiers, author of Water wars: is the world’s water running out? (1999) writes: “The world is not running out of water—there is plenty for everyone. But it’s often in the wrong quantities in the wrong places at the wrong time.” To be sure, water resources face inefficient allocation. In a world that is becoming more “hot, flat, and crowded,” (according to Thomas Friedman) the problem is severe.

There are substantially more of us, using infinitely more water. About 250 million people inhabited the earth 2,000 years ago. The UN projects nine billion people by 2050, and the water supply cannot keep pace. In the 20th century, water usage increased six-fold, while the population only doubled. We are polluting, depleting and diverting our already meager freshwater supplies far quicker they than can be replaced, creating droughts and deserts in once-fertile areas. The Sahara is expanding, while the water level in the once- pristine Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake) and the Nile Valley are sinking.

Expanding population means higher food consumption. Globally, agricultural irrigation is the biggest consumer of water, accounting for 70 percent of total use. Far more people now crave water-intensive products, such as a Big Mac, which essentially requires 264 gallons (1,000 liters) of water to produce. (Haitian children survive on 1.32 gallons or five liters of water provided by UNICEF.) In India alone, annual water demand will escalate to almost 1.5 trillion cubic meters in 2030, driven by a ballooning population trending toward a middle-class diet. Yet India’s current water supply is half that amount, which means most of India’s river basins (according to the Charting Our Water Future report by the 2030 Water Resources Group) could run into severe deficit in 30 years, unless smart solutions are implemented.

Is the water safe for everyone?
In addition to challenges in quantity, the problem of water quality is more immediate and dire in rural areas of developing countries, where the only water is often a contaminated well, typically less than 10 feet deep. Even where there is actually a stream or river, the water source is often infected from animal and human wastes that are directly deposited without undergoing any treatment. In many rapidly developing countries such as China, industrial wastes have become major water pollutants. Toxic chemicals dumped on land have been reported to leak into surface and ground waters. After a recent investigation of the water quality at 4,002 centralized drinking water sources in 655 cities nationwide, the Chinese government aptly announced the Urban Drinking Water Sources Protection Plan (2008-2020) aimed at guaranteeing the safety of drinking water sources in urban areas. Even in Canada, water quality is a serious concern. Today, residents in 527 British Columbian communities either have to boil their water or risk a fatal waterborne infection. Many Boil Notices have been in place for years, others for decades, some for 32 years! Three-quarters of the 1,800 water systems in the nation’s interior are considered at high risk; an estimated 600,000 residents cannot drink, wash vegetables or brush their teeth from their faucet. The United States is no exception. The Environmental Working Group’s analysis of nearly 20 million drinking water tests conducted by water suppliers nationwide from 2004 to 2009 revealed 316 contaminants in US tap water. Washington, DC, too, had once confronted issues with lead, pollutants and outdated pipes in its water system; a majority of the 600,000 Washingtonians (including myself) still don’t think drinking water from the capital city’s tap is safe.

Don’t drink the tap water
Wealthier, health-conscious societies have come to regard municipal tap water as a source of contamination and contagion, while many of the world’s poor lack municipal infrastructure altogether. Public water fountains (often considered an anachronism and liability) have been replaced with bottled water. In Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, Peter Gleick tells a story of Central Florida University, which built a 45,000-seat football stadium with zero water fountains.

Mexicans are as distrustful of their tap water as any foreigner who visits the country, and are cautioned not to drink tap water. According to the Beverage Marketing Corp., Mexicans drink more bottled water (an average of 61.8 gallons per person each year) than the citizens of any other country, including Italians and Americans. For years, they boiled their water, but boiling has become too expensive and inconvenient. With recent improvements, 85 percent of the municipal water systems are considered safe; however, the average Mexican family spends $140 a year on bottled water to avoid the risk of the other 15 percent. Ironically, the quality of bottled water is less well monitored and regulated than tap water.

Indeed the growth of the bottled water industry is a story about 21st century paradoxes. Our insatiable taste for better-than-tap water in cities has also led to a risky global glut of bottled water consumption. Speculation of world- wide demand rising to more than 74 billion gallons (280 billion liters) annually by 2012 have triggered what is being dubbed as the ‘blue gold rush’ of the multi-million-dollar bottled water industry. The average cost of eight glasses of water from the faucet every day is around 49 cents a year, versus $1,400 for the same amount of bottled water.

Finding sustainable solutions
Every second of every day in the US, a thousand people buy and open up a plastic bottle of commercially produced water. This means 85 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day and more than 30 billion bottles a year at a cost to consumers of tens of billions of dollars. Environmentalists advocate that bottled water is not safer or better tasting or even more convenient than tap water; it generates massive amounts of pollution from piping, bottling, transportation and burning. More than 17 million barrels of oil are used each year to create bottles for water (enough to fuel one million US vehicles for an entire year), and produce almost 29 million tons of plastic waste each year. Most plastic water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET plastic) that ends up in landfills where it takes between 450 and 1,000 years to break down. Bottled water is obviously not going to reduce our carbon footprint or greenhouse emissions.

In what may be the first case globally, the New South Wales town of Bundanoon (with 2,500 residents) banned bottled water in response to a bottling company’s attempt to extract millions of gallons of water from the local aquifer. According to Bundy On Tap, the organization that spearheaded the movement, it is now prohibited to sell or give away bottled water within the town precinct. Instead, the town now offers public drinking fountains and filtered water dispensers where people can fill up reusable water bottles. In a similar attempt to reduce bottled water waste and find more sustainable solutions, New York City launched TapIt, a new service that offers free tap water refills at over 100 participating city cafes. At the core of its mission, “the TapIt network is not just about going bottle-less, less bottles, less recycling, less water privatization and extraction. It is about understanding why those things are a problem and finding new and sustainable 21st century solutions.” Abandoning bottled water is not a panacea to protecting the environment or solving the drinking water challenges we face.

Prioritizing water
“It is time to stand up and demand that our public places and spaces have clean, working water fountains,” Gleick stated. “It used to be that no city in ancient Greece and Rome could call itself civilized unless public fountains were available for everyone.”

Public drinking water is the very foundation of public health. In the US and most developed countries, we have relatively safe public water systems. But in much of the world, the water problem is the primary reason people are unable to rise out of poverty. Women and children bear the burdens disproportionately, often spending six hours or more each day fetching water for their families and communities. Water, however, is a basic human right that should not be privatized, but prioritized instead. Developing countries need help to build a strong public water system, not a mere handout of water bottles. In many developed nations, where water infrastructure is in need of repair, it should be made a priority. What this means is that we need collective efforts to understand and overcome the underlying causes of the world’s drinking water challenges. It will take all of humanity to care for the common good, to make universal safe drinking water a reality.

About the author
Hannah Kim is a native of Los Angeles, CA. Her educational back- ground includes training at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, Anderson School of Management at UCLA, and Seoul National University. She recently spearheaded a grassroots movement to pass a bill in the US Congress, and believes people can change the world if they combine their will. Kim currently lives and works in Washington, DC, where she is most passionate about making a small difference. She can be reached at hkim@remember727.org.

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