Water Crisis: Mass killer: dirty water

Poverty can be measured in gallons. For more than 20 per cent of the world's population - 1.4 billion people - the lack of safe drinking water is perhaps the greatest deprivation of all. Even more - about two billion - do not even have basic sanitation: their wastes often get into the water.

Dirty water is the world's greatest single killer. Every day it claims the lives of 25,000 children. Every year about four million children under five die from just one water-borne disease, diarrhoea. That is the equivalent of wiping out every pre-school child in Britain and Australia one year, killing under fives in Canada and Germany over the next 12 months, and so on, year after year.

In rural Africa children are commonly ill, largely from waterborne diseases, for 140 days in the year. Even those who survive may be gravely damaged, for repeated illness causes malnutrition, stunting their physical and mental growth.

And not just children suffer. At any one time half the inhabitants of developing countries are ill with diseases associated with dirty water and poor sanitation. Four-fifths of all illness - and a third of all deaths - are caused this way, while an average person in the Third World loses one tenth of his or her productive time each year to waterborne diseases. India forgoes 73 million working days each year - and $600 million in health costs and lost production - to the effects of dirty water.

Hundreds of millions of people in the rural Third World go through life without ever using a tap. In rich countries, we each use between 150 and 1,000 litres of water a day. Relatively prosperous Third World city dwellers use between 100 and 350 litres, while poorer neighbours depending on public hydrants may manage on 20 to 70. But, in the city slums or, above all, in the countryside, where there are few taps, the amount drops dramatically; in rural Kenya, for example, it can fall as low as two to five litres a day, close to the limit for bare biological survival.

Every drop of the scarce, often dirty water has to be carried, inevitably by women, often for miles and hours on end. A typical full container weighs 20kg, the same as a suitcase at the limit allowed by most airlines. In parts of Africa and India women often have to walk for at least six hours just to get to and from the waterholes, and queue for another four hours when they get there.

This task dominates their day, denying them the chance to do more productive work. The weight of the water causes backache, and can result in disability.

Once brought, every drop is treated like gold. When a UN official chided an African villager for not making her children wash their hands after defecating (a practice which cuts the incidence of diarrhoea almost in half) she retorted: "I have to carry our water seven miles a day. If I caught anyone wasting water by washing their hands, I would kill them."

The 1980s, by international decree, was designated the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade with the avowed goal of providing everyone alive with clean water by 1990. It did not achieve this target, the deadline was moved to the year 2000, and no-one expects this to be met either. Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation reports the drive did bring safe water to over a billion people for the first time. In almost every country, it says, the proportion of people with clean water increased, sometimes dramatically. In Burkino Faso it went from 30 to 68 per cent.

The benefits are enormous. In economic terms, the Venezuelan Government found that every dollar invested in clean water paid for itself five times over in increased production. The human gains are incalculable. And, morally, the state of its water remains a crucial yardstick of the world's values.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media & Advertising Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national business publishi...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea