New Internationalist

The Facts

September 1981

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WATER[image, unknown] The Facts

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Water - resource for life

Over half the people in the Third World do not have clean water to drink. And three quarters have no sanitation at all. The effects on health are staggering: up to 80 per cent of all diseases are water-related. Imagine every citizen of the US urinating blood from bilharzia, everyone in Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines sweating and shivering with malaria, almost everyone in Brazil aching and incapacitated with diarrhoea. It is figures like these that prompted the United Nations General Assembly to launch the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade in November 1980.


Photo: UNICEF/Bernard P Wolff
Photo: UNICEF/Bernard P Wolff

World water

Water covers three-quarters of the world’s surface but 99 per cent is in the oceans or locked in the ice caps.

The one per cent of water available for human use — 38,000 cubic kilometres — is the amount which flows round the ‘hydrological cycle’: water evaporates from the seas, rains on land and then flows down rivers back to the sea. But 38,000 cubic kilometres should be enough. At 9,000 cubic metres per head it is six times the amount of water each person in the developed world now uses.

Industry now uses some 200 cubic kilometres of water per year of which 40 cubic kilometres evaporate and the remaining 160 cubic kilometres are contaminated. This contaminated waste water pollutes, on average, 25 times its own volume. That is one-tenth of all the available water in the world.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme Media Pack, 1976.












Enough for survival, enough for health

Two thirds of our bodies’ weight and nine tenths of its volume is water. That is why water is essential for life. People can survive for up to two months without food, but die within three days without water.

  • A person needs about 5 litres of water each day for cooking and drinking.
  • But the World Bank estimates that a further 25-45 litres are needed for each person to stay clean and healthy.

In many places the family’s water must be fetched each day by women or children.

The most a woman can carry in comfort is 15 litres, each litre weighing one kilogram.

If she carries only enough water for her family (husband, mother, five children) to survive each day, she would need to fetch about 40 litres.

But to keep them all clean and healthy she would need to fetch 200 litres of water every day.

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This, is why the amount of water consumed depends largely on whether it has to be carried to the house.

Photo: UNICEF/Campbell
Photo: UNICEF/Campbell

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The targets for the Decade

The goals of the Decade are clean water and sanitation for all by 1990. If the World Health Organisation (WHO) minimum standards — standpipes and pit latrines in rural areas and individual taps and sewerage in towns— were met the bill for the whole Decade would be over $80 billion. That is $25 million a day for every day of the Decade. But the world spends:

• $240 million a day on cigarettes
• $1400 million a day on arms

No-one believes the Decades targets will be met because:

• water and sanitation are not the top priorities of governments and aid agencies
• money spent seems money wasted — the World Bank estimates water systems in the Third World are breaking down faster than they can be constructed
• donors prefer to build systems rather than maintain them — and most government budgets cannot meet running costs.

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It depends where you live

Third World governments tend to favour supplying clean water to the towns because:
• It is cheaper and more convenient to supply densely populated urban areas
• It is less dangerous to drink from standing water or wells in the country
• The urban areas have more political clout The aspirations of urban elites must be met. Strikes and disruptions make governments more sensitive to the demands of city-dwellers.

The same is true of sanitation: In cities water-borne diseases can quickly infect

The cost of the family's water

In the countryside of the developing world the cost of water is best measured in the time and energy spent collecting it. In cities the costs are more direct. Piped water is paid out of our taxes in the developed world. But in the outer cities of the Third World many people without piped water must buy their water from a private lorry.

A US worker’s family of four consumes about 660 litres of water every day.
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The water used by an East African family of eight living on the city outskirts without piped water, costs about 2 cents per 18 litre tin.
If they consumed the full 200 litres needed to keep them healthy each day this could take as much as one tenth of their income.

The costs are still higher if the bread winner is a woman who has to stay away from work on the days when the water truck comes round.

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Litre for litre an African family is paying at least forty times as much in labour time for their water compared to the US family.

The people without

The figures below are often too optimistic. They are based on statistics reported by individual governments to the WHO; stating, for example that everyone in Moroccan, Zambian and Boliviar cities has access to clean drinking water. It seems improbable that the huge squatter settlement surrounding cities in these countries are provided with such facilities.

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'International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade: Reports of the Secretary General, 1980'
'Water and Sanitation for all?' Earthscan Press Briefing Document No. 22

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Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 103 This feature was published in the September 1981 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 103

New Internationalist Magazine issue 103
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