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Water and sanitation

Global irrigated area and water withdrawals

Since 1970 global water withdrawals have mirrored the rise in irrigated area. Some 70 per cent of withdrawals are for agriculture, mostly for irrigation which provides 40 per cent of the world's food

Source: FAO 2001, Shiklomanov 1999

For many of the world's poorer populations, one of the greatest environmental threats to health remains the continued use of untreated water. While the percentage of people served with improved water supplies increased from 79 per cent (4.1 billion) in 1990 to 82 per cent (4.9 billion) in 2000, 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion lack access to improved sanitation (WHO and UNICEF 2000). Most of these people are in Africa and Asia. Lack of access to safe water supply and sanitation results in hundreds of millions of cases of water-related diseases, and more than 5 million deaths, every year (see box below). There are also large, but poorly quantified adverse impacts on economic productivity in many developing countries.

The importance of meeting basic human needs for water has always played a major role in water policy. One of the earliest comprehensive water conferences was held in 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The focus on human needs led to the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade 1981-90) and the efforts of the United Nations and other international organizations to provide basic water services (UN 2000). The concept of meeting basic water needs was reaffirmed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and expanded to include ecological water needs. A recent United Nations report (UN 1999) recognized that all people require access to adequate amounts of safe water, drinking, sanitation and hygiene. Most recently, the Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference in The Hague in 2000 (see box below) produced a strong statement from more than 100 ministers in support of re-emphasizing basic human needs as a priority for nations, international organizations and donors.

Vision 21: global targets for water supply and sanitation

To address issues plaguing the provision of water supply and sanitation to the developing world, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) presented the following global targets, called Vision 21, at the Second World Water Forum at The Hague in March 2000:
  • by 2015, reduce by one-half the proportion of people without access to hygienic sanitation facilities;
  • by 2015, reduce by one-half the proportion of people without sustainable access to adequate quantities of affordable and safe water;
  • by 2025, provide water, sanitation and hygiene for all
Source: WSSCC 2000

Providing urban dwellers with safe water and sanitation services has remained a particular challenge. Some 170 million developing country urban dwellers were provided with safe water and 70 million with appropriate sanitation during the first half of the 1990s but this had limited impact because about 300 million more urban residents still lacked access to safe water supply, while nearly 600 million lacked adequate sanitation by the end of 1994 (CSD 1997b). However, a major area of success in many developing countries is related to investments in wastewater treatment over the past 30 years which have 'halted the decline in - or actually improved - the quality of surface water' (World Water Council 2000b).

The costs of water-related diseases

  • two billion people are at risk from malaria alone, with 100 million people affected at any one time, and 1-2 million deaths annually
  • about 4 billion cases of diarrhoea and 2.2 million deaths annually: this is the equivalent of 20 jumbo jets crashing every day
  • intestinal worms infect about 10 per cent of the population of the developing world about 6 million are blind from trachoma
  • 200 million people are affected with schistosomiasis
Sources: CSD 1997a, WHO and UNICEF 2000