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On World Water Day, News Outlets Examine U.N. Reports On Water, Sanitation Conditions Worldwide

“Human beings are flushing millions of tonnes of solid waste into rivers and oceans every day, poisoning marine life and spreading diseases that kill” 1.8 million children each year, according to a U.N. report (.pdf) released on Monday, Reuters reports.

Coinciding with World Water Day, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) report documents the detrimental health effects caused by contaminated water. According to the report, “[d]iarrhoea, mostly from dirty water, kills around 2.2 million people a year, it said, and ‘over half the world’s hospital beds are occupied with people suffering from illnesses linked with contaminated water,'” the news service writes.

“The sheer scale of dirty water means more people now die from contaminated and polluted water than from all forms of violence including wars,” the UNEP said, Reuters reports (3/22). According to a UNEP press release, some of the “substances that make wastewater a pollutant – for example nitrogen and phosphorus – can also be useful as fertilizers for agriculture. Wastewater can also generate gases to fuel small power stations or be used for cooking. The report notes that already some 10 percent of the world’s population is being supplied with food grown using wastewater for irrigation and fertilizer and with better management and training of farmers this could be increased substantially” (3/22).

A second UNEP report (.pdf) examines how investments in low-cost water technologies can help to reduce water pollution, while simultaneously improving economic conditions in low-income countries, Capital FM reports. The report proposes urgent action to improve water quality worldwide (3/22).

“The report notes that it is almost always cheaper to prevent pollution than clean it up – and poor water quality has significant economic costs, from ecosystem and human-health costs and impacts on economic activities to increased water treatment costs and reduced property values,” according to a UNEP press release. “For example, economic losses as a result of health impacts from the lack of water and sanitation in Africa are estimated at US$28.4 billion, or about 5 percent of GDP. And sanitation and drinking water investments have high rates of return: for every US$ 1 invested, there is a projected US$3-US$34 economic development return,” according to the release (3/22).

“World Water Day highlights how the work of improving and sustaining the world’s water quality is everyone’s responsibility,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, according to Capital FM. “It may seem like an overwhelming challenge but there are enough solutions where human ingenuity allied to technology and investments in nature’s purification systems such as wetlands, forests and mangroves can deliver clean water for a healthy world,” he said (3/22).

IRIN reflects on the global water and sanitation statistics, as documented in the UNICEF-WHO report released last Monday. The report found that while “1.3 billion more people can access improved sanitation, compared to 1990,” an estimated “1.1 billion people [worldwide] still relieve themselves outdoors, with eight out of 10 of them living in 10 countries.” The piece also includes region-specific statistics on the state of sanitation and water conditions, according to the report (3/22).

Of the 2.6 billion people worldwide believed to lack access to basic sanitary facilities, 638 million live in India, the Los Angeles Times writes in a piece that examines the challenges women in India face in trying to access safe places to go to the bathroom. The article details several efforts to increase the number of public toilets in India, including a new push by city officials in New Delhi to encourage large companies to build more public facilities ahead of the Commonwealth Games scheduled for this fall (Magnier, 3/22).

A second IRIN article notes how a public awareness campaign about the health risks associated with open defecation in Pakistan led to a reduction in the cases of open defecation reported – dropping from 51 percent in 1990, to 38 percent in 2000 and 27 percent in 2008, according to the UNICEF-WHO report. “People have begun building basic pit latrines in outhouses or other toilet facilities attached to their homes, rather than going outdoors,” according to IRIN (3/21).

PBS’ NewsHour examines “the shortage of potable water in Ethiopia and how the effort required to maintain existing watering points affects millions of people every day” (de Sam Lazaro, 3/18).

Meanwhile, in Uganda, six in 10 Ugandans have access to clean water, the Daily Monitor reports in a story that examines the steps needed to improve water access. The article also notes the disparities in clean water coverage throughout the country (Lirri, 3/22).

In related news, Business Day reflects on the conditions in Nigeria, where more than 70 million people lack access to clean water and 100 million lack access to latrines or toilets, according to a 2009 UNICEF report (Chiejina, 3/22).

A Reuters blog features photographs capturing images of water conditions in Asia to mark World Water Day (3/22).