Drinking Water

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The World Health Organization defines reasonable access to safe drinking water in an urban area as 'access to piped water or a public standpipe within 200 metres of a dwelling'; for rural areas, the WHO definition of reasonable access is 'drinking water within 15 minutes walking distance'. Interpretation of these definitions, even in the definition of what is rural and what is urban, is clearly open to subjective judgement; variations in definition mean that comparisons between countries may be misleading. In general, much of the international data available on water provision must be accepted with scepticism.

In 1980, the United Nations launched the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade in an effort to improve access to potable water and sanitation in developing countries. The mid-decade report showed promising signs for rural dwellers: worldwide, access to safe water had increased from 33 percent to 45 percent; the picture for the world's urban population had remained static: the worldwide average being about 75 percent. However, the report also noted that the per capita cost of providing water and sanitation services continued to increase despite the development of less expensive technologies, which suggests that governments may not be able to sustain improvements in water supply.

To support a reasonable quality of life requires approximately 80 litres of water per person per day. Around the world, average consumption ranges from 5.4 litres per day in Madagascar to more than 500 litres (approximately 160 US gallons) per day in the USA. Everywhere, demands on water are high, and growing fast. In the USA, it is estimated that household water consumption will quadruple between 1967 and 2000, and that the demands of industry will increase fivefold.

The main problems in relation to water supply vary between rich and poor countries, although sewage is polluting rivers everywhere (see Map 16). In poor countries, the greatest difficulty is the cost of bringing piped water to more people. In the rich world, there are growing problems of protecting water supplies from pollution. Groundwater and rivers are threatened by the use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture and by disposal methods for the increasing quantities of industrial and toxic waste produced by industry (see Maps 25 and 27). The UK Department of the Environment reported in 1988 that some drinking water sources had had to be 'abandoned because of pollution from landfill sites'. And in February 1990 the Observer reported that over 1300 landfill sites used for disposal of toxic waste were posing 'some risk' to water supplies.

Ideally, drinking water should come from unpolluted groundwater. However, this is an ideal in rapid retreat, and currently more than half the population of OECD countries and 70 percent of the US population drinks water that has been passed through waste water treatment plants. The danger in this is that not all waste can be removed in treatment, and the chemical agents used in treatment may themselves pose health risks.

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