ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

Sanitation is Important

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According to André Picard in today’s Globe and Mail bad drinking water quality is still the main reason,for half of the world’s population, for disease.

How can we take seriously the promise of the Book of Life (the genome) when we cannot, or will not, provide our fellow man with the most basic element required for life, a few drops of water daily?

I think a pretty good article from a non-engineering perspective.

There have been some remarkable scientific and medical advances in recent years, such as the decoding of the human genome, the deployment of a space probe that retrieved a thimbleful of comet dust, and the advent of instant communication à la BlackBerry.

Yet, how do you reconcile this awe-inspiring technological prowess and world of limitless possibilities with the grim realities on the ground?

Consider that the most pressing and bedevilling public health concern on the planet remains almost medieval.

Shockingly, almost half the world’s population, 2.6 billion residents concentrated mainly in Africa and Asia, lacks access to basic sanitation. One in six people worldwide, more than one billion, is without safe drinking water.

How can we take seriously the promise of the Book of Life (the genome) when we cannot, or will not, provide our fellow man with the most basic element required for life, a few drops of water daily?

How can we, in good conscience, dream of travelling to faraway planets and stars when we seem incapable of building latrines and digging wells in sufficient numbers to sustain a minimal quality of life?

A century ago in Canada, life expectancy was less than 50 years. Today it is over 80.

The principal reason for that dramatic leap in average lifespan was the ability to tame the spread of infectious disease, in large part through the creation of sewage systems and water purification.

The lack of access to those basic requirements of healthy living is the world’s most horrific and least reported humanitarian disaster.

Lack of sewage services kills more people than war and natural disasters. According to the World Health Organization, 4,500 children die daily from the consequences of unsafe water and inadequate hygiene — about 3.4 million children and adults annually.

Where there are no toilets, people defecate in ditches, or in plastic bags tossed into ditches or dump sites. Raw sewage is everywhere and, when it rains, noxious black liquid flows in the streets, through people’s homes and into the local water supply.

When people fall ill, as they invariably do in these conditions, the vicious cycle begins anew, in an accelerated fashion. Sickness begets human waste, which begets more sickness.

And lest we be too self-righteous, let’s not forget that this problem is not limited to the developing world. So-called honey bags are still the archaic waste management method used in a number of remote communities in Canada, principally native reserves. Clean water is not a given in our vast, watery land, either.

Lack of sanitation is responsible for a broad range of fecal-oral diseases such as diarrhea (one of the world’s biggest killers of children), cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, dysentery and dracunculiasis (Guinea worm disease).

Intestinal worms lead to malnutrition, anemia and retarded growth, both mental and physical. Trachoma, an eye infection that thrives where sanitation is lacking, is a leading cause of blindness. Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia), a debilitating illness in tens of millions of people each year caused by a parasitic worm, would essentially disappear with rudimentary sanitation measures.

Much is made of the battle against killer diseases such as HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, but those efforts are being severely compromised by restricted access to clean water. How can a person expect to benefit from cocktails to treat HIV-AIDS, for example, if the water required to wash down the pills is contaminated?

Education, too, is imperilled, because so many children spend the better part of their days walking long hours in search of water instead of sitting in the classroom. Childhood vaccination has proved a public health bonanza but its true impact has been blunted by the ravages of water-borne diseases for which there are no vaccines.

Poverty is obviously an impediment, but a more serious problem still is the commercialization of water. As a recent report from the United Nations Development Office makes clear, all too often, the poorer you are the more you pay for water.

That is because municipal water supplies provide cheap water, heavily subsidized, to those with the means to have plumbing, including industry and suburbanites. Those in slums rely on an elaborate web of suppliers such as tanker-truck operators and water vendors. The perverse result is that poor residents of slums in Nairobi and Manila pay more per litre for their water than the comfortable residents of New York or London.

Water, surely, must be considered a basic human right. Water is as necessary to survival as the air that we breathe.

Yet, South Africa is one of the few countries that has legislation guaranteeing access to water. There, all water providers, private and public, must provide a basic minimum of water free of charge.

On our little blue planet, there is water, water everywhere, but so many are going without because they are drowning in a sea of indifference.

Written by Claus

November 16th, 2006 at 11:47 pm

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