Almost all dirty water produced in homes, businesses, farms, and factories in developing countries is washed into rivers and seas without being decontaminated.
And up to 60 percent of supplies that have been purified to the point that they are potable are lost through leaky pipes and ill-maintained sewage networks, according to a report released today. Saving half of these lost supplies could give clean water to 90 million people without the need for costly new infrastructure, says the UN.
“The sheer scale of dirty water means more people now die from contaminated and polluted water than from all forms of violence including wars,” the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said.
This includes 2.2 million people whose deaths are attributed to diarrhea, mostly from dirty water, and 1.8 million children aged under five who succumb to water-borne diseases. This equates to one infant every 20 seconds.
The findings were presented during a three-day conference held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to coincide with the annual focus on clean and sustained water supplies for a human population expected to grow by 50 percent in the next four decades.
"If the world is to survive on a planet of 6 billion people heading to over 9 billion by 2050, we need to get smarter about how we manage wastewaters," Achim Steiner, UNEP’s director, said in a press release. “Wastewater is quite literally killing people.”
Rivers of sewage in the slums
Less than five miles from the downtown conference center hosting the water conference, Grace Gathura spent Monday morning as she always does – queuing for water at a communal tap in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.
The shantytown, home to 1 million people largely ignored by the city authorities, is notorious for its "flying toilets."
Without decent latrines in their iron-walled huts, people are forced to defecate into plastic bags, which are then unceremoniously thrown out of the door.
The waste is among the 2 million tons of sewage and industrial or agricultural waste that ends up in rivers and streams each day.
Most of those water sources are then also used for cooking and cleaning water.
“I have lived here in Kibera for 12 years, and it is only two years ago that this tap was constructed,” Mrs. Gathura said. “Before, there were people selling clean water at prices which are too high for us. But even now, there are many of us who do not find clean water every day, and so many are sick.”
According to the UNEP report, more than half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people struggling with illnesses linked to contaminated water.
“It may seem like an overwhelming challenge but there are enough solutions where human ingenuity allied to technology and investments in nature's purification systems such as wetlands, forests, and mangroves can deliver clean water for a healthy world,” said Mr Steiner.
Aside from recommending a focus on fixing leaky pipes, the World Water Day meeting called for water recycling systems and multi-million dollar investments in sewage treatment works.
But, the UN added, just $20 million could pay for drip-irrigation and tread pumps to draw water from wells, which could lift 100 million poor farming families out of extreme poverty.