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World Water Day 2001: Water For Health

Nairobi, 22 March 2001 - The water crisis, unlike the energy crisis, is life threatening. The level of suffering and misery represented by these statistics is almost beyond comprehension. And it is the children and women who suffer most.

According to Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): "The water crisis - unlike the energy crisis - is life threatening. The level of suffering and misery represented by these statistics is almost beyond comprehension. And it is the children and women who suffer most.

As water is an absolutely vital resource, at the centre of life itself, it is a key integrating factor in the environment. Without sustainable water management to ensure that there are sufficient supplies of clean, safe water, the health of ecosystems and those who depend on them, especially people, suffer".

That the water crisis is the most immediate and serious human health and environmental problem facing the planet is confirmed by the stark statistics. For example, UNEP's Global Environment Outlook report 2000 included the following statistics:

· Three million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases (such as cholera and dysentery) caused by contaminated water;

· Polluted water affects the health of 1.2 billion people every year, and contributes to the death of 15 million children under five every year.

· Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, kill another 1.5 to 2.7 million people per year, with inadequate water management a key cause of such diseases.

The negative impacts of unsustainable water use and pollution of watercourses result in harsh environmental, economic and social costs. Millions of people all around the world are all too aware of this - through outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases (such as cholera and dysentery) and typhoid caused or transmitted by contaminated water. The failure to properly dispose of human waste is often the cause of such diseases, contaminating essential water supplies such that millions of people die from these diseases every year. These disease outbreaks create widening circles of misery, illness and death with dire economic and social impacts for the people concerned. The environment suffers too, with human waste polluting water and damaging river ecosystems dependent on clean water. When the environment suffers, people suffer, because the aquatic environment is a key human resource.

Other problems arise from indiscriminate deforestation and other poor catchment management practices that reduce water supplies vital to agriculture and other economic activities. Deforestation leads to increased run-off, and increases the chances of water shortages. It also leads to increased soil erosion and decreased soil fertility that can result in decreased food production. Sedimentation in watercourses and reservoirs decreases the capacity to store water or generate electricity. The chances of serious droughts are increased, without the forest to retain and return water to the atmosphere through transpiration, and sow the seed for future reliable rainfall. Forest, wetland and river ecosystems are all damaged by deforestation and people face increased economic and social costs. These costs reflect water shortages, decreased soil productivity and health problems caused by the decreased availability of clean water. Forests in water catchments play a vital role in maintaining both the quantity and quality of water - there are no clean, sparkling water courses where forests have been cut down and erosion increased.

The negative health impacts of contaminated water and water shortages are well-known - typhoid, cholera, dysentery, etc. But less attention is paid to fact that women and children bear the brunt of the costs of dirty water and water shortages. Children are more likely to become ill, and women have to look after them. Women and children carry out most water collection, and many spend hours doing so. Hours spent collecting water could be spent in more productive activity, such as food production, so that there is a high opportunity cost to the lack of clean water. When people are sick, they and their caregivers cannot carry out other tasks, so there are opportunity costs there as well.

"An unhealthy environment means sick people, thus the essence of sustainable human health is sustainable management of the environment", said Mr. Toepfer.

What is perhaps the most depressing aspect of this human and environmental health disaster is that the solutions - especially sustainable management of water catchment areas - are well known. Moreover, history provides grim reminders that failure to manage our water resources properly has caused the end of civilizations - in Mesopotamia, but also in other countries, such as Ethiopia, where the ancient civilization of Aksum collapsed, partly because of deforestation and its consequent water related impacts.

The key to solving water problems lies in adopting an integrated water catchment approach - a catchment being that area that encloses all land that feeds into a defined water body. A catchment approach is recommended because land and water use in one part of the basin can affect users and conditions in other parts of the same basin. That is, a water catchment is a natural management and development unit.

And, as UNEP's Water Policy and Strategy points out, having adopted a catchment approach, it is critical to promote an intersectoral approach that recognizes the interlinkages that affect water management - for example between land and water, agriculture and water, technology and water, health and water.

A multi-objective planning approach that bases catchment management decisions on a transparent, systematic and integrated assessment of environmental, economic and social factors is vital. This is because of the interlinkages that exist between these three factors. Environmental degradation inevitably has economic and social consequences for human beings. In the case of catchment degradation, agriculture and energy production are reduced, which imposes direct economic costs. Contaminated water imposes harsh economic and social costs on people.

"On this World Water Day that focuses on water for health we should remember that the basis of human health is a healthy environment," said Mr Toepfer, "and that the basis for sustainable economic production is also a healthy environment. Water is the key resource and as we can never create more water, we must act to improve the health of the water we have, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Sustainable management of water catchment areas is the acknowledged best practice for doing so and its adoption is urged".

For further information please contact: Halifa Drammeh, Deputy Director, Division of Policy Development and Law, UNEP, tel: 254 2 624278; fax: 622788; email: or Tore J. Brevik, UNEP Spokesman/Director of Communications and Public Information, P.O. Box 30552; tel.: 623292; fax: 623692; email:

UNEP News Release 01/40


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