May 3, 2004
Thinking small could quench Third Worlds
thirst for reliable, clean water, prof says
By Jennifer McNulty
Americans spend millions of dollars on bottled water because they dont
like the taste of their local tap water, yet one in six people worldwide
lack access to clean drinking water. That disparity is at the heart
of environmental studies professor Brent Haddads latest research.
While many Americans take safe water for granted, these Afghans
get their water from a stream. Photo:
Mario Tedo, courtesy of Mercy
In urban areas of the United States, we have the luxury of focusing
on the culinary aspects of water, said Haddad. We dont
hold up the glass and ask ourselves, Is this water going to make
Outside of the United States and Europe, many people have no choice
but to drink water they know is contaminated with potentially life-threatening
Haddad discussed their plight during the inaugural event of the UCSC
Science & Engineering Librarys Synergy
Lecture Series. His talk was titled, Not an Accident? Understanding
Why One Billion People Worldwide Lack Reliable Drinking Water.
Trying to understand--and correct--a disparity that persists decades
after the problem was solved in the United States, Haddad suggested
that low-cost filtration systems like those used by campers could be
a winning strategy, and he criticized the reluctance of multilateral
agencies to embrace a small is beautiful strategy.
A few statistics bring home the scale of the problem:
A total of 1.3 million children under the age of six die each
year from drinking infected water, said Haddad.
More than 2 billion people are infected with helminthes, a soil-transmitted
worm that nests in the intestines, and schistosomes, parasites that
hatch in water, infect humans by penetrating the skin, and are passed
in urine or feces.
Haddad believes the rich nations of the world share a moral obligation
to help people in need. To those who argue that deaths caused by infected
water are acceptable in light of global overpopulation, Haddad countered
that clean water would, in fact, reduce population.
People who know they are drinking contaminated water make their
choices about fertility and reproduction on the assumption that some
of their children will die, he said. Contaminated water
is one of the biggest factors in the higher mortality rates of Third
In addition to reliable drinking water, people need basic sanitation
services--which Haddad noted 2.4 billion of the worlds 6.3 billion
people currently lack.
Access to clean water, he stressed, doesnt mean an unlimited
supply flowing from a shiny chrome tap. Technically, it is defined as
20 liters per person per day delivered to within one kilometer of home,
which could mean a well or a pump. Sanitation is defined as a nearby
system that effectively separates human waste from other nearby water
The technology we need to solve these problems is not that high-tech.
Its accessible, said Haddad, noting that the vast majority
of waterborne diseases stem from microbial activity rather than industrial
chemicals or waste.
On the high-tech end, Haddad noted that Santa Cruz wastewater is treated
with ultraviolet radiation before being released into the Monterey Bay--to
protect the eyes and ears of our surfers. The UV sterilizes bacteria
in the water and eliminates microbial activity that causes infections
in humans, he explained.
Whether simple or sophisticated, most water treatment systems mimic
the natural purification processes of rivers and wetlands. In the United
States and Europe, water treatment is administered by municipal agencies
with state and federal support and oversight, a system that works exceedingly
well, said Haddad.
But the export of that model to the Third World 30 years ago--with
the addition of a layer of supervision by multilateral agencies such
as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment
Program (UNEP)--has failed, said Haddad.
Among the reasons WHO and UNEP cite when explaining their lack of progress
on Third World water delivery are:
Developing countries lack the expertise and funds to run the
Countries have no way to make people pay their water bills;
Foreign aid is often inadequate and frequently dissipates before
it reaches its intended destination;
Cities refuse to expand services outside their borders, where
populations are booming;
Insufficient political commitment at all levels;
This is the same litany weve been hearing, and it hasnt
changed for 30 years. We need to admit that the model isnt working--technically,
financially, politically, or institutionally, said Haddad.
Suggesting that multilateral agencies might have a conflict of interest
on water issues, Haddad called for a paradigm shift in the way the problem
Maybe governments arent the right entity, he said.
Maybe the United States and Europe are the anomaly. Maybe were
the weird ones because our systems actually work.
Pipelines are problematic because users tap them illegally, and truck
deliveries are rejected as unsanitary and dependent on unreliable sources
of water, said Haddad, who then challenged himself to think outside
the box. Looking at other models for the continuous distribution
of goods and services to large numbers of people, Haddad is considering
everything from the delivery of rural health care to street markets
for illegal drugs. In the process, he is becaming convinced that smaller-scale
systems focused on the end user would be more successful than a top-down
approach administered by governments. Haddad noted that other UCSC professors,
including sociologist Ben Crow, are developing this concept of small-scale
end-user water treatment.
Inexpensive water purification systems that let users pour rainwater
through a filter--like you use when you go camping--would
be cheap, manageable, and low-tech, said Haddad. In addition, it would
minimize the risk of contamination because water would be purified immediately
prior to use.
Its a solution that can scale up and help millions of people,
said Haddad, adding that a coalition of environmentalists in the United
States, nongovernmental organizations in developing countries, and private-sector
developers of innovative pump and filter technologies could work together
to address this problem in novel ways.
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