Let justice roll down like water…
- The prophet Amos
Today, I wander away from my usual themes because this is a problem that really bothers me.
Fifteen years ago, Milwaukee was the home to the most devastating water-borne illness outbreak in U.S. history. Over 400,000 people became ill and more than 100 died when cryptosporidium contaminated the city’s drinking water supply. Since then, the city has spent more than $90 million on ozone treatment, better filtration, improved monitoring, and a 4,200 foot extension of the intake pipe extending into Lake Michigan. We are, again, safe.
At the time of the outbreak, I remember the sense of disbelief that anything like this could ever happen in a developed country. At the hospital, we used bottled water for several days. Beds were at a premium as more than 4,400 people were admitted to the area hospitals during the crisis. Soon, though, the contamination was controlled and everything went back to normal. The episode was quickly forgotten by those of us fortunate enough to have not been touched personally.
When I visited Tanzania earlier this year, I was struck by the number of women balancing brightly colored five gallon plastic buckets on their heads. Amidst a population with almost no personal possessions, the people treasured these pails. Like much of the developing world, such containers are indispensible in search by women and girls for water. Many spend two hours or more each day at the task.
The issue of water justice, particularly as a medical problem, was highlighted in a recent article
in The New England Journal of Medicine
. More than one-third of the world (2.6 billion people) has no reliable access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.
Many people in the developing world have access to only five liters of water each day; in the United States, we each use 50 liters each day merely for toilet flushing. We each consume approximately 350 liters each day for all of our activities combined.
In the developing world, the lack of clean water causes disease in several ways: by carrying pathogens, by permitting person-to-person transmission because of lack of hand washing, by carrying water-based hosts, by allowing breeding of water-based insect vectors, and by carrying toxins.
There are some problems where I, smugly, think I can make a difference. This problem, however, is an enormous, multi-faceted, overwhelming quandary that will take governments, education, and resources to remedy. The UN has challenged its membership to cut the number of people with no water access in half by 2015 and there are lots of good people
working on the problem. What can each of us do to make a difference?