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Public health and human security perspectives on importance of water

[PHP Nepal Vol 1 Issue 7 Jul 2011] | Water is a vital resource for global ecosystem and human life. The total amount of water on Earth is fixed. Majority of water is either salt water (97.5%) or locked up in glaciers (1.75%) whereas remaining 0.007 percent is only available for human use. People need safe and sufficient water to be healthy. Poor quality of water can cause water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever. A shortage of water for personal cleanliness can also lead to diseases as trachoma, plague and typhus. It can also lead to dehydration and eventually causes death. If water is mixed with chemicals from agriculture, industry, mining it causes skin rashes, cancers and other serious public health problems. 

The per capita quantity of freshwater is declining with the increasing human population, inequitable access and distribution of water. Approximately one third of the world’s population lives in water stressed countries, mainly in Asia and Africa. Absolute water scarcity already affects more than 500 million people in 30 countries and this number is expected to increase to 11.8 billion by 2025. Climate change has mainly worsens the water scarcity situation, especially in the driest areas of the world. It impacts on frequent severe environmental events, such as forest fires, floods, landslides, droughts, torrential rains, heat waves and even more harsh environmental impacts affecting the availability of water resources and soil quality and productivity. In addition, urbanization and increase in domestic and industrial water use also increased the water need. Thus, water scarcity can threaten and reduce the quality of life and hinders the overall human development.

Scarce water also leads to water conflict. There are numerous articles which describe water as an historic and, by extrapolation, as a future cause of interstate warfare. Westing suggests that, “competition for limited freshwater leads to severe political tensions and even to war”. Samson, Paul and Charrier also have similar conclusions. An increasingly prevalent viewpoint about water and security is best summed up by Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World Bank: “The wars of the 21st century will be about water”. Numerous articles discuss that there are very few cases of trans-boundary water conflict as there are more than 3600 treaties on international water resources: most of the current conflict occurs at the national level. Such conflicts have inevitably cause loss of lives, physical injuries, widespread mental distress, malnutrition (particularly among children) and outbreaks of communicable diseases. For example, fifty people were hurt during strikes called to protest water shortages in Bangladesh (1999); 100 people had been killed in over three decade long clashes between farmers from Hebei and Henan provinces in China; 30 more were killed over violence for allocation of Cauvery River between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in 2002 and there are many more such cases. Thus, water is more than ever becoming a concern with personal and community security. 

Food production is dependent upon high quality and sufficient quantities of fresh water. More than 70 percent of 0.007 percent of freshwater available for human use is consumed for agricultural purposes, mainly in irrigation. The growing global population will demand even greater agricultural productivity in future. Hence, the water scarcity threatens the availability of food for sustainability of life.

In conclusion, among different natural resources, water is vital as an overall component of public health (food, health, diseases, conflict and environment) as well as for human security. The growing population in the world and changing climatic conditions threaten the availability of water resources for the existence of human life.  The current patterns of use of the available water also threaten to make the water situation worse. However, there are many solutions for dealing with water shortage. The most cost effective and common solution is conservation of water resources. Other methods include: reducing the amount of water wastage, recycling the water, and reserving the water for future generation. Thus, public health professionals have a key role in educating people on water conservation and implementing 3R (reduce, recycle and reserve) measures as these actions can solve the problems created by water scarcity. Moreover, there is urgent need for public health experts to better understand the inter-relationship between the population growth, urbanization, climate change, water, health and human security.

Bikesh Bajracharya is a MPH (Global Health) student at Thammasat University, Thailand.

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