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Water, Water, Everywhere—But Is It Clean?

Water, Water, Everywhere—But Is It Clean?

The grim reality that unsafe water is responsible for more deaths around the world than war.

When a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi earlier this year arrived at her hotel, and wanted to turn on the water tap, she encountered the following warning: “Do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.”

This incident, like many others (“peach juice…oh wait, that’s water,” tweeted another journalist in Russia for the Olympics), was mostly laughed off in the West, where an ironic hashtag—#SochiProblems—began making the rounds.

But when it comes to water, the Sochi episode was no glitch. More than ten million Russians lack access to quality drinking water. Sixty percent of the country’s population drinks water from contaminated wells, mostly in rural, backwater regions. As a New York Times report from Moscow a few years ago concluded, in Russia “the rich buy bottled water, and the rest boil, hold their noses and drink.”

Despite these stories, Russia’s case is hardly the most alarming among the former Soviet states, let alone most of the developing world. The reality is that almost one billion people in the world—nearly one in seven—do not have access to improved water sources and more than three million people die every year from waterborne diseases. Lack of access to safe water has become such a global plight, in fact, that it is responsible for more deaths around the world than war.

Unless there is a drastic overhaul of current trends, experts predict the global demand for water will exceed supply by more than fifty percent by 2025. And while that trajectory is certainly daunting, several policy changes and technological advances are working in tandem to help mitigate a disaster—and improve the lives of billions.

“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity,” wrote the United Nations’ committee on economic, social, and cultural rights in 2010. “It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

Part of a long-term policy solution would likely involve investment in groundwater digging.

Around the world, there is currently 60 times as much fresh water stored underground as there is in lakes and rivers above ground. Not to mention that groundwater has been shown to be more resilient to droughts and floods than water drawn from rivers or ponds—a valuable trait in today’s world of increasingly volatile climate patterns.

Currently, the high investment associated with drilling for water, and the technical difficulty in siting locations large enough to serve the population in need, limit the tapping of the groundwater. Nor is groundwater “a fail-safe resource, either, when it comes to providing clean water, according to a report by the charity Water Project.” There is still risk of contamination in wells and of high concentration of metal in the groundwater itself.” Nonetheless, Water Project concluded that “groundwater is the best resource to tap to provide clean water to the majority of areas in Africa, especially rural Africa.”