Water, water, nowhere...

| 22nd March 2007
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March 22nd in World Water Day, an UN initiative to draw attention to the dreadful conditions in which many millions of the world's citizens draw their water. Maggie King reports

The average UK citizen uses 150 litres of water per day. Behind this figure however, are a wealth of processes which mean that the actual water consumption for every 150 litres used in everyday activities is more like 3400 litres. Although it may not be apparent, this extra water consumed is not only unnecessary but is causing health and water shortage problems in communities across the world.

On Wednesday, Girish Menon, International Operations Director of WaterAid, opened the photographic exhibition, 'Would You Drink This?', at Foyle's Bookshop In London. The exhibition reveals the unsanitary conditions under which billions around the world obtain their supply of water.

Compared to the average 200 litres per day in the UK, and 400 litres of water used per day in the US, citizens in communities suffering from water shortages use an average of 10 litres per day. The water that is available is often a long, dangerous walk from home, and it is likely that the source doubles as a toilet.

One increasingly problematic cause of water shortages is “embedded water”, or the water used to produce food and non-food import products. About 70 percent of embedded water is used in the production of goods imported from other nations, nations, which are simultaneously in desperate need of water for their community. For instance, currently, one drop of coffee requires an average of 1100 drops of water to find its way to your breakfast table. And whilst you stir, social conflicts may have erupted in the areas where the crop was produced, such as in Dak Lak, Vietnam. There the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers in coffee production has contaminated much of the local water supply.

Although you may consider coffee a necessary part of daily life, those 1100 drops are actually not necessary in the production of coffee. Water systems can be cleaned and improved to avoid problems such as water shortages or unhealthy drinking water.

And, in fact, those drops must be avoided. Menon refers to unsanitary water conditions as the silent killer, responsible for 1.5 million lives per year, while HIV/AIDS cases take 285,000. Right now, according to the United Nations, 4,400 children under the age of 5 around the world die each day from health problems caused by unclean water and sanitation in efficient water systems. Menon stressed mobilisation of awareness of these problems in British and US communities as one of the key ways to improve systems.

But consumers can do much more to change the water supply system than simply taking shorter showers. Many imported goods are already “water efficient” and you only need to find out how much water the produce requires to grow, and then ask the seller if a particular product was imported from a low-irrigation produce supplier. Similarly, buying organic products ensures that the water would not be affected by the use of fertilisers and pesticides in crop production.

To mobilise awareness on the international level, the UN has launched World Water Day for March 22 in order to stir research and projects to create clean and efficient water systems. The UN teamed up with American hip-hop artist Jay-Z in the promotion of the Water for Life decade, a ten year campaign to improve inefficient water systems in developing nations and make water available to those who are in need. Jay-Z initiated a partnership with the United Nations and MTV 'Think' campaign to document the world water problems on film, after witnessing first-hand communities experiencing water shortages or unclean systems that he encountered during his world music tour in 2006, including some in Turkey and South Africa. Jay Z's documentary “Water for Life” can be viewed on MTV overdrive on www.mtv.com/overdrive.

Water is an essential part of life. It’s time we took managing this essential seriously. Menon told the Ecologist that solutions to water shortages are available, and that the large-scale sanitation systems across the developed world are testaments to this fact. He added: "Water shortages and unsanitary conditions can be avoided as long as government and industries follow the same health and environmental policies for water systems in the suffering communities as they do in their host countries."

The UK is hosting several events in promotion of World Water Day. For a full list, visit http://www.unwater.org/wwd07/nfevents.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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