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World on Track to Meet MDG Safe Water Target, But Challenges Remain

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By Susan Blumenthal, M.D.
Written in collaboration with Kirstin Krusell

Safe and sustainable drinking water is essential for the health and economic well-being of the world's population, and yet 99 percent of the world's water supply is unsafe or unavailable to drink. Despite the challenges this presents for the earth's 7 billion people, as of 2010 the world is ahead of schedule in meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the percentage of people lacking access to safe, sustainable sources of water. Today, 89 percent of the world's population uses "improved" drinking water sources, with 2 billion people having gained access since 1990. "Improved" drinking water sources are those that have not necessarily been chemically tested for safety, but "by nature of their construction are protected from outside contamination."

Recognizing the importance of water as a vital resource essential to all aspects of life, the UN General Assembly declared the years 2005-2015 the Decade for Action on "Water for Life," and in 2010 the UN affirmed that access to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. Nevertheless, there remain 780 million people without access to clean water sources, with significant regional and rural/urban disparities. Although substantial gains have been made in India and China for instance, sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania are not on track to meet the MDG drinking water target.

Furthermore, the world is far from achieving MDG targets for sanitation, which is crucial for ensuring that improved water sources remain clean and safe. Currently, 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation infrastructure. For this reason, sanitation was a major focus at this month's 6th World Water Forum.

Due to this water and sanitation crisis, approximately 3.6 million people die annually from water-related diseases such as diarrhea, cholera (a disease that has resurged in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years), dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis, and parasitic illnesses like malaria, whose transmission relies on the presence of stagnant water. Contaminated water creates a vicious cycle in which diarrheal diseases prevent the proper uptake of nutrients, exacerbate malnutrition and compromise immunity to other infectious diseases like HIV and respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Diarrheal diseases kill 2.2 million people per year and are the second leading cause of death among children under 5 years old globally.

Moreover, lack of access to safe drinking water disproportionately impacts women and girls, who shoulder the primary responsibility for collecting water. In just one day, 200 million hours are spent globally by women and girls collecting water for their families, preventing them from engaging in other productive activities, such as education and occupational opportunities. It is estimated that investment in water and sanitation could result in 272 million more school attendance days a year.

With the world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, demand will continue to increase for water resources vital not only for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene, but also for supporting agriculture. Water access is also a national security issue, because civil and international conflicts sometimes arise from disputes over arable land and water: The tragedy in Darfur, for example, was driven in no small part by tensions over access to water.

Therefore, innovative and comprehensive solutions to addressing the global water and sanitation crisis are essential. Governments, businesses, civil society and local communities must work together to support technological research and development, educational campaigns and better methods of monitoring and evaluation. They must invest in and maintain infrastructure and equitable distribution models that ensure the urban poor are not forced to pay more than the wealthy for water access. Promising advances include new techniques for purifying water (like desalinization, waste water treatment and devices using solar energy), composting toilets, more convenient methods of transporting water, and micro-finance programs that provide small loans to help women meet household-based water and sanitation needs.

Reaching the MDG target for drinking water ahead of schedule is a great global achievement. It is testament to the strength of public/private partnerships, innovation and the setting of ambitious targets with lifesaving goals. But on this year's World Water Day, let's not forget that significant challenges remain in further expanding access for the 11 percent of the world's population still lacking safe, sustainable sources of drinking water. Unless we continue to effectively implement a global action plan for water, large numbers of people around the world will continue to suffer and die needlessly for generations to come for want of clean water.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center, and Senior Policy and Medical Advisor at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four Presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, and as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch at the National Institutes of Health. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. She is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a 2010 Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation and GQ magazine.

Kirstin Krusell recently graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a Bachelors of Arts in International Development Studies. She is currently a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.

For more by Susan Blumenthal, M.D., click here.

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