Drinking Water and Society

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Drinking Water and Society

The course of world society in the twenty-first century is likely to be substantially influenced by a single resource: drinking water. The first and most obvious fact is that water is an absolute necessity. Without water, lifeanimal, plant, or humancannot exist. Water comprises approximately 75 percent of the human body. Without adequate water, the body ceases to function. Depending on one's exertion level and weather conditions, the average adult should consume a minimum of eight 8-ounce glasses (or about 2 liters) of water daily.

One might think that drinking water should not be a problem in the twenty-first century, but it can be. Several related factors define the challenges. First, quantities of water on planet Earth suitable for drinking are extremely limited. Less than 1 percent of all water on Earth is available as groundwater and surface water suitable for human uses such as drinking and cooking. The remainder is either salt water (97 percent) or is locked up in ice (just over 2 percent).

Second, precipitation, which replenishes groundwater and surfacewater resources, does not fall evenly over the face of the Earth. Additionally, some times of the year are rainy, other times dry. Thus, water resources are bountiful at some times and in some places, but extremely sparse in others.

Third, for more than a billion people in developing countries, water is scarce and frequently contaminated, thereby posing a health risk. In these parts of the world, contaminated drinking water along with primitive (or nonexistent) sanitation systems annually result in widespread illness and millions of deaths annually. The majority of the victims are children.

Infrastructure Versus the Search for Water

In the United States and other industrialized nations, access to clean, safe water for the majority of the population is achieved through a public watersupply infrastructure . In the United States, federal, state, and local laws and regulations tightly govern most public drinking-water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is principally responsible for establishing standards for public water supplies and overseeing their enforcement. The agency defines water as "safe" if it contains no harmful bacteria or other pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms, and the concentrations of individually regulated toxic chemicals are below drinking-water standards.

Yet supplying water conforming to this criterion is expected to become increasingly difficult. The U.S. drinking-water infrastructure (collection, holding, treatment, and distribution systems) is aging. Much of it has been in place for most of the twentieth century, and is becoming subject to frequent failures. Recent federal government studies indicate that repairs to, and replacement of, the drinking-water infrastructure will become a multibillion-dollar item in federal, state, and local budgets.

Moreover, competition for water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural needs can only be expected to accelerate in the years ahead. Increasing urbanization and development compete with nonurban uses such as agriculture; often, these very different land and water uses adjoin one other geographically. Lawmakers and resource planners worldwide face a daunting challenge to meet ever-increasing needs for adequate drinking-water supplies.

Developing Countries.

The situation is quite different in less developed countries. A water-supply infrastructure often does not exist. International assistance may provide a community well; but in many cases, people drink dirty and contaminated water because no other options are available in their communities. People typically gather water from the nearest source, which often is the same one used for bathing and washing activities, waste disposal, and perhaps even a watering source for local livestock. These varied uses of the same water source frequently lead to the spread of diseases.

More than 1 billion of the world's people lack access to safe water, and nearly 2 billion people lack safe sanitation. Over 3 million people annually die from avoidable water-related diseases. Dirty water from unsanitary conditions is the leading cause of death of children in Asia, and globally claims the life of one child every 30 seconds.

The search for water is a daily way of life for many people in developing countries, especially in most countries of the African continent, and numerous areas within Asia and South and Central America. A 2000 report by the Asian Development Bank stated that of the 300 million people living in the AsiaPacific region, one person out of three have no access to sources of safe drinking water within 200 meters (655 feet) of their homes. Whether in cold or hot climates, the constant search for safe drinking water is often difficult and time consuming. This situation can worsen during droughts (and other adverse weather conditions), conflicts, and wars. Women and children most often carry out the task of gathering water.

Compounding the problem are demographers' predictions that the world population will increase by approximately 33 percent over the first 25 years of the twenty-first century. As this century opened, the world population was just over 6 billion. At present growth rates, it will top 7 billion by 2013 and 8 billion by 2028. Much of this growth is expected to take place in developing countries, many of which are already burdened with serious drinking-water problems.

Examples of Inadequate Water Supplies

With 40 percent of the world's population facing water scarcity, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan identified water as one of the key discussions for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The summit identified the limited availability of fresh-water resourcesalong with economic growth, industrialization, population growth, and urbanizationas the major factors that have contributed to water scarcity. This condition is not limited to certain regions, but extends throughout the world, as the following three examples illustrate.

Burkina Faso.

The isolated city of Liptougou in the western African country of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) lacks the basic infrastructure of a regular water supply, along with schools, roads, and health facilities. One of the main problems confronting all citizens is insufficient drinkable water sources. This necessitates that women fetch water for their families' needs during most of the day, which in turn restricts their ability to perform other necessary tasks.


Nepal is a small mountain country that lies north of India and south of China, and near Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. Most of the country's 20 million people have no water, no electricity, and limited access to health facilities. Women spend much of their time walking narrow paths in treacherous terrain to the nearest water source. The hike for water is difficult because some women must carry 50-pound jugs full of water for up to an hour.


Honduras is a developing nation in Central America with an economy that has never been stable and with large areas of poverty and subsistence farming. More than 81 percent of families have no access to drinkable water, electricity, or schools.

Water is necessary for human survival, and the search for and transport of water still characterizes daily life for much of the world's population, particularly the poor. Their lack of access to adequate and safe drinking-water supplies affects health and economic opportunities. To address this ongoing global challenge, the 2002 Johannesburg Summit pledged the goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.

see also Conflict and Water; Developing Countries, Issues in; Groundwater Supplies, Exploration for; Human Health and Water; Infrastructure, Water-Supply; Population and Water Resources; Rainwater Harvesting; Safe Drinking Water Act; Supplies, Public and Domestic Water; Supply Development; Survival Needs; Sustainable Development; Uses of Water; War and Water.

Edward F. Vitzthum

William Arthur Atkins


de Zuane, John. Handbook of Drinking Water Quality, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley& Sons, 1997.

Gleick, Peter H. The World's Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources 20002001. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.

Ingram, Colin. The Drinking Water Book: A Complete Guide to Safe Drinking Water. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1991.

Tobin, Richard J. "Environment, Population, and the Developing World." In Environmental Policy (4th ed.). eds. Norman J. Vig and Michael E. Kraft. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000.

Internet Resources

Allie, Mohammed. South Africa Flounders In Its Search For Free Water. Panos Institute. <http://www.panos.org.uk/news/February2002/south_africa_water.htm>.

Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water. <http://www.safe-drinking-water.org/>.

EPA Ground Water and Drinking Water. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. <http://www.epa.gov/safewater>.

Water for People. <http://www.water4people.org>.

Water in Africa. Volunteers of the Peace Corps and World Wide Schools. <http://www.peacecorps.gov/wws/water/africa/resources/index.html>.

Water Supply and Sanitation. The World Bank Group. <http://www.worldbank.org/watsan/>.