Fixing the world’s water woes

Every scenario involving the conditions necessary for life demands water – from the “warm little pond” (where Charles Darwin conjectured life began) to the bubbling sea vents that today are the most popular candidates for life’s beginnings.

If all of the Earth’s water (oceans, icecaps, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere) were put into a sphere, then the diameter of that water ball would be about 860 miles. The Earth’s mean diameter is 7,917.5 miles.

Water is a finite resource. Nearly all of it is salt water and most of the rest is frozen or underground. Astonishingly, only one-hundredth of 1% of the world’s water is readily available for human use. Even so, this would still be enough to meet humanity’s needs if it were evenly distributed. But it is not. And where water is available, it is often polluted: nearly a third of the population of countries in the global South have no access to safe drinking water.

The existence and survival of ancient civilizations and modern communities has always relied on access to drinking water. Yet it was only in 1989 that a right to drinking water and sanitation was asserted in the context of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals called for a reduction by half of “the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water” and three years later the World Health Organization published a document on The Right to Water stating that, “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable for personal and domestic use.”

More recently, on 28 July 2010, the Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognised by the United Nations General Assembly. Governments are supposedly obliged to ensure that people can enjoy “sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water, without discrimination” and to take reasonable steps to avoid contamination in water supplies.

Water scarcity in many less developed countries is a perennial problem. But it comes as a surprise to learn that in Canada – a country not exactly short of fresh water – First Nations people face inadequate water allocations or supplies. In a HuffPost blog (2 September 2016), Liam Massaubi complained:

“The First Nations water crisis is beyond a national embarrassment. It should be seen as a national crime that the basic human right to water is seriously at risk in First Nations communities across Canada… Children that are bathed in the available water often end up with painful rashes or other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Water wells are contaminated with uranium, among other things, including cancer-causing by-products that are used to treat the dirty source water.”

Similarly, in the USA, hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas face inadequate water supplies and sanitation. In “America’s Water Crisis Could Be Worse Than You Know”, Time Magazine (22 March 2016) ominously noted:

“Our water infrastructure is fraying. Pipes are old and treatment facilities often outdated. We must make heavy investments in and commitments to increased water testing and state-of-the art infrastructure. We worry about roads because we can see the rot, the decay, the risk. We can’t see our pipes, however, and we may think that our water is fine unless it comes out of the tap brown or orange. But that’s not always the case.”

Thomas Jefferson once observed, “The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the only legitimate object of good government.” Fixing the world’s water woes should be high on the agenda.


All Earth’s water, liquid fresh water, and water in lakes and rivers. Spheres showing: (1) All water (sphere over western USA, 860 miles in diameter). (2) Fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers (sphere over Kentucky, 169.5 miles in diameter). (3) Fresh-water lakes and rivers (sphere over Georgia, 34.9 miles in diameter). Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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