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Background on issues relating to Water

Facts and Figures

© UNICEF/Nicole Toutounji

At present, 2.4 billion people--38% of the world’s population--do not have consistent access to adequate sanitation facilities, 300 million of whom live in Africa alone. In developing countries up to 90 percent of waste water is discharged into rivers and streams without any form of treatment . The unsanitary water created serves as a breeding ground for parasites, amoebas and bacteria and leads to a number of water-borne diseases. In the developing world, 80 percent of illnesses and deaths are attributed to water-borne diseases, taking a child’s life every eight seconds.1

Tainted water prevents people from cleansing properly, leading to a range of skin and eye infections. Repeated occurrences of the bacterial infection Trachoma, for instance, leads to scarring, distortion of the eyelid and often visual impairments or blindness. Six million people are currently blinded by this disease, affecting their ability to perform necessary tasks and therefore their economic stability. Women, who are twice as likely to contract the infection as men, are often prevented from completing vital household chores because of their impaired vision.

© UNICEF/Jonathan Shadid

Approximately 1.2 billion people (almost 20 percent of the worlds’ population) do not have regular access to safe drinking water. Diseases from drinking contaminated water include hepatitis A and E, dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever and diarrhea. The most deadly of these is diarrhea, responsible for killing an estimated 1.3 million children (most of whom are under the age of 5) and almost 1 million adults per year. Another 2 million people are affected by diarrheal diseases annually.2

When contaminated waters cause outbreaks of disease or infection, the economy suffers as well. For instance, the costs associated with disease and death from polluted coastal waters alone total US $16 billion per year. Ocean pollution directly affects nearly 40 percent of the world’s population who live within 60 kilometers (approximately 38 miles) of the coast. Over 3.5 billion people rely on the ocean as their primary source of food. Besides the harmful health effects of pollution, damages to the ocean’s ecosystem negatively impacts the fishing industry and tourism and therefore the livelihood of those reliant upon these trades. Destruction of coral reefs, for example, drastically impacts the lives of those living both in and out of the water. Ninety percent of marine species are dependent upon coral reefs either directly or indirectly and therefore suffer from any harm done to these beautiful and delicate species. Humans involved with tourism based around coral reefs (for instance those working for scuba diving companies) also suffer. Scientists predict that 60% of coral reefs are at risk of extermination within the next 30 years.

Oil poses one of the most destructive forms of pollution. Each year, an estimated 21 million barrels worth of oil make their way into oceans from street run-off, waste from factories and from ships flushing their tanks. In addition to this figure is the amount of oil dumped into the ocean each year from oil spills. Other forms of pollution include plastic waste, for instance, kills approximately 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals and innumerable fish.3

© UNICEF/Nicole Toutounji

There is a gender dimension to water issues as well. In many countries, women bear the majority of the responsibilities for collecting and storing water, cooking, cleaning, and overseeing sanitation. In Africa , for example, women fulfill 90 percent of water-related duties, spending up to three hours per day collecting water in rural regions.4 When women are unable to fulfill these responsibilities by themselves (either because of health issues or other responsibilities), children (most commonly daughters) are expected to assist them, often dropping out of school to do so5. Girls who must walk long distances to collect water face safety issues. They are more vulnerable to sexual assault, and in countries undergoing armed conflict, they are at risk of being abducted into paramilitary groups.

Many girls are prevented from going to school because the facilities lack a sufficient number of toilets and are rarely private or have toilet paper. Without access to an adequate education, these girls are unable to break the current cycle of women solely fulfilling domestic obligations, therefore limiting their opportunities for economic advancement.

Water issues are not unique to the developing world, however. In the United States, since the ratification of the Colorado River Compact in 1922, water rights disputes have engaged states in the Upper and Lower Basins ( Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada, Arizona, and California respectively). As populations continue to grow, water supplies become scarcer in these western states. In the midst of such disputes, measures to ensure water quality have fallen by the wayside according to a report released by the American Rivers group, which named the Colorado River the nation’s most threatened waterway. The report lists sources of contamination that pose potential health threats to the millions of people using this major source of drinking water; these include radioactive human waste seeping into the river from an abandoned uranium mine in Utah and high concentrations of septic tanks near the river bank respectively.6

Arguments over transboundary water rights, such as this or the conflict over the Jordan River between Jordan and Israel, span the globe. According to the UN, 88 of the world’s river basins are shared by two or more countries resulting in potential for conflict. Ismail Serageldin, Vice President of the World Bank claimed in 1995:

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”

The damming of rivers and streams is also a contentious issue. In 1960, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) became involved with the rescue of the Nubian monuments in Egypt due to archaeologists’ fears that the rising Nile River, resulting from the construction of the Aswan High Dam, could destroy these historic ruins. The relocation of the Abu Simbel temples cost $36 million in 1964.7 The project inspired UNESCO’s introduction of the World Heritage Program, dedicated to the preservation of 788 sites of cultural and natural importance around the world.


There are at least 45,000 large dams operating around the world today and an additional 1500 dams under construction. Dams, canals and other diversions interrupt the flow of 60% of major rivers globally. Some rivers, such as the Colorado, Rio Grande and Yellow River no longer reach the sea at various times of the year because fragmentation has led to significant decreases in water flow.

Those in favor of damming argue it is an appropriate way to deal with the pressures of development. Dams provide water to 12-16% of world food production; contribute to 19% of the total supply of electricity worldwide through hydropower; and help control water supplies, a major role of 12% of large dams.

While dams can improve agricultural output by making more land suitable for cropping, aid flood control and provide hydropower to millions of people, they are also responsible for significant environmental damage and the disruption of many communities.8 In 2000, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) released a report analyzing 125 of the world’s largest dams in terms of their outputs and the measurable impacts the have had. The report found that two-thirds of ecosystem impacts had negative consequences with impedance of migratory fish ranking as the most significant for twenty-five percent of the dams investigated.9 Others concerns include habitat destruction, temperature changes in the water, the effects of trapped sewage and obstruction of food supplies for species reliant on these rivers for survival.

Forced alterations to migration patterns for fish and changes to habitats in the Danube River in Europe are suspected to be responsible for the extinction of two of the five sturgeon species previously found in the Danube ’s basin. Similarly, scientists fear the extinction of several species in the Yangtze River in China because of the Three Gorges Project (the largest damming project in the world to date). These species include the Chinese alligator (the most threatened crocodile species in the world), the finless porpoise and the Yangtze River dolphin, also known as baiji.

Damming also affects the lives of humans living on the river basins. According to the WCD, overall displacement because of dams could be between 40 to 80 million people worldwide as of 2000. Official estimates indicate 1.2 million people have had to relocate as a result of the Three Gorges project alone.

Dams affect the livelihood of those reliant on the river as well. For example, the construction of the Tucurui Dam on the Tocantins River in Brazil made it significantly more difficult to catch fish—60% fewer fish were caught for the same amount of effort—therefore negatively impacting people dependent on fishing for their livelihood and eventually leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of fisherman in the community. The Bakolori Dam on the Dokoto River reduced average flood levels by 50%. While this was a positive change in many regards, many of those downstream of the dam had been rice farmers who depended upon these floods for their crops to survive. Even though dams can often improve agricultural output, in this case, the Bakolori Dam resulted in a 53% decreased in usable cropped area in this northwestern region of Nigeria.10

While many oppose damming, water consumption world-wide has tripled since 1950. Based on current trends, water use is expected to increase an additional 40 percent by 2025.11 Consequently, the number of people without access to adequate water facilities is expected to increase from one third of the population to two thirds by 2025.12 Many of these problems are related more tomismanagement than scarcity. Proper resource management could therefore greatly diminish the problems we face. Current agricultural, logging, and conservation practices greatly affect access to adequate water. Fifty percent of water in cities and 60 percent of water used in agriculture is wasted through leaks and evaporation. Urban and industrial development is responsible for practices that have decreased the world’s forests and wetlands by half. In turn, deforestation is responsible for increased soil erosion and water scarcity. Destruction of wetlands, which absorb chemicals and filter pollutants and sediments, has diminished this natural and highly efficient form of sewage treatment.13


UN Initiatives to Address Water Issues

These problems are not going away; they are getting worse and will continue to worsen until major changes are made. It is time to address these problems and search for viable solutions. The United Nations stressed the significance of this issue when declaring “Water for Life” the theme for the International Decade for Action, 2005-2015. The resolution emphasizes “that water is critical for sustainable development, including environmental integrity and the eradication of poverty and hunger, and is indispensable for human health and well-being.”

During the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janerio, Brazil in 1992, 178 governments adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action including many initiatives for the management and protection of water, to be taken globally, nationally and locally.14

189 Heads of State and Governments gathered at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 to create the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The goals are intended to support development while addressing existing problems in an attempt to better the world for the future. Within goal number seven, to ensure environmental sustainability, the leaders pledged to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 (currently 18.6% or 1.2 billion people worldwide).15The success of attaining several other goals, however, depends upon improving access to clean, safe water. For instance, in order to reach goal #4 (to reduce child mortality) and goal #6 (to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases), water-borne diseases must be combated as they are related to 80% of all illnesses and death in developing countries. Without altering current methods for water retrieval or redistributing responsibilities within the home, it will be difficult to attain goals 2 and 3 (to achieve universal primary education and to promote gender equality and empower women respectively), since women in developing countries dedicate so much of their day to the important responsibilities of gathering water and tending to matters of hygiene and sanitation.

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) commonly referred to as the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, reaffirmed the commitment to implementing the Millennium Development Goals, Agenda 21 and the Rio principles through the WSSD Plan of Implementation. 16 Building on previous pledges, the Johannesburg Summit includes a resolution to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation and states that “closer coordination should . . .be promoted to elaborate and support proposals and undertake activities related to the International Year of Freshwater 2003 and beyond.”17

Finally, for the first time in history, the right to water was officially recognized as a fundamental human right in November of 2002. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights amended the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to include the right to water under Article 11 (the right to an adequate standard of living) and Article 12 (the right to health) as a result of General Comment 15, ratified by 145 countries. It states:

"the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient; affordable; physically accessible; safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses".

The Covenant specifies that governments must espouse national strategies and plans of action so they may "move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realisation of the right to water".18

Members at each of these summits recognized the gender dimension to water issues, including sections addressing the rights and needs of women specifically. Agenda 21 includes a chapter entitled Global Action for Women towards Sustainable and Equitable Development and the Political Declaration of the Johannesburg Summit addresses the need for women to have greater political power in decision-making around resource management. In September 2003, the UN introduced an inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water, which utilizes the knowledge of gender and water specialists from 13 of its agencies to ensure gender-sensitive water and sanitation activities are implemented.

Due to the number of UN departments dedicated to water issues, the Administrative Committee on Coordination Subcommittee on Water Resources (UN-ACC/SCWR) created the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) to compare and monitor the information disseminated by the various departments. The primary purpose of the WWAP is to create an all-encompassing water document known as the World Water Development Report (WWDR).19

These three summits and associated documents are a testament to the urgency of local, national and international action needed in response to the already polluted waters and the poor environmental practices globally. Water issues affect all of us: rich and poor, young and old. Water is necessary to live and key to sustainable development, but less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater is available to use. The world’s 2 billion children and adolescents are both at the center of the water crisis and offer the greatest hope for addressing it successfully.


December 1-2, 2005

United Nations
Headquerters, NY

Intermediate and
Secondary Students
(grades 5- 12)

Water as a Human


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