by Dr. Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute
I’m thrilled by the thoughtful, informed, and high-quality feedback to my first post (much of which will serve as fodder for future posts), and the apparent interest in pursuing a discussion about water problems driven by numbers and facts.
I started with a number that reflects the serious failure of society (whether local communities, national governments, or international organizations) to successfully meet basic needs for safe drinking water for all. My second “water number” is the common companion to the first: the number of people who lack access to improved sanitation services.
Water Number: There are around 2.5 billion (yes, billion) people worldwide without access to improved sanitation, which simply means they do not have a safe and clean place to go to the bathroom.
Like the drinking water number in my first post, this number comes from the United Nations World Health Organization, and is also a rough estimate. It is not well-measured precisely because of the difficulty in doing so, including variations in definitions of “improved sanitation,” and the fact that many countries fail to accurately report because, frankly, it makes them look bad. As it should.
Providing this improved sanitation, however, does not require providing modern flush toilets, which can be costly and require large amounts of water and related infrastructure, like wastewater treatment plants and sewerage systems. Indeed, there are many “technologies” for providing safe sanitation that require no water at all, from low-tech (but well designed) latrines to sophisticated, Swedish composting toilets that even an American could grow to love. I’m even tempted to argue that these alternatives are, in many ways, better than modern flush toilets. After all, the flush toilet we all use and love is really just an efficient way to contaminate an immense quantity of water, forcing us to then collect it and clean it up (which costs quite a bit of energy and money in the process).
While this certainly is something to think about, we Americans (along with Europeans, Japanese, and many others) don’t have to give up our toilets in order to solve the vast unmet need for sanitation in the poorest countries. There are many alternatives out there, and groups working to promote them. People like Jack Sim and the World Toilet Organization, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a variety of resources around something called Ecosan (like http://www.ecosanres.org, and http://www.ecosan.org), and dozens more.
Providing adequate sanitation does more than just offer a safe place to go to the bathroom. It offers dignity. It provides myriad health benefits, including a decrease in the prevalence of water-related diseases. It helps girls in developing countries stay in school past puberty, which has many other community benefits. And it reduces the contamination of local environments.
While most discussions around access to adequate sanitation focus on developing nations (which is no surprise as it is an extensive problem for these areas), it is interesting to note that there are people in our own country who also lack access to adequate sanitation. Permit me a second fact:
Water Number: “The U.S. 2000 Census reveals that more than 1.7 million people in the United States, 670,986 households, still lack the basic plumbing facilities that most of us have come to take for granted.” -Rural Community Assistance Partnership