Girls drinking clean water

Time to tackle the water crisis

Colourless, odourless and insipid: that is arsenic and is in the drinking water of 20 million people in Bangladesh, causing 43,000 deaths per year. According to a damning report by Human Rights Watch, even two decades after arsenic was discovered in most of their natural water sources, the Bangladeshi government is still failing to take the appropriate actions.

This poison in the water for human consumption was discovered some 20 years ago in countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Mexico, Argentina or even the US. Drinking toxic water on a regular basis, whether it be by drinking the water directly or indirectly through foods in contact with it, may cause skin lesions, lung or bladder cancer, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or development delay, according to WHO.

Between 1999 and 2006, Bangladeshi authorities along with some donors and international charities analysed around 5 million wells in the country, mapping them in red or green depending on whether their level of arsenic was above or below the safe limits. This titanic effort revealed dangerous levels of arsenic in wells supplying drinking water for 20 million people in Bangladesh, yet even today this situation has not been addressed. In fact, government wells do not reach the areas where they are most needed, amid allegations of political corruption, thus harming the poor:

Clean water should not be a pipe dream: access to water and sanitation are basic human rights recognised under international law. However, one third of the global population lack access to adequate sanitation, and nearly one in ten people worldwide (or twice the population of the US) live without access to drinking water.

Actually, investing in water and sanitation pays off: according to WHO, for every $1 invested in improved access to water and sanitation, an average of $4 is returned in increased productivity, as women and girls in such countries would not need to spend so much of their day collecting water. “Access to clean water is perhaps the single most powerful tool for sparking economic growth that humanity has ever known,” so it may be time to kick people’s consciences and take action now.

Back in 2010, before the Syrian crisis, unsafe water was killing more people than war, according to the UN. Some 842,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene; at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source that is contaminated with faecal matter; and by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

These data are flooding us with transparent information, so why can’t governments act diligently and clean up their act? “Water is the driving force of all nature,” Leonardo da Vinci once said. We take it for granted in the First World, and it needs very little to help others. And we can all make it happen.

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