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May 3, 2004

Thinking small could quench Third World’s thirst for reliable, clean water, prof says

By Jennifer McNulty

Americans spend millions of dollars on bottled water because they don’t 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 Haddad’s latest research.

While many Americans take safe water for granted, these Afghans get their water from a stream.
Photo: Mario Tedo, courtesy of Mercy Corps.

“In urban areas of the United States, we have the luxury of focusing on the culinary aspects of water,” said Haddad. “We don’t hold up the glass and ask ourselves, ‘Is this water going to make me sick?’”

Outside of the United States and Europe, many people have no choice but to drink water they know is contaminated with potentially life-threatening bacteria.

Haddad discussed their plight during the inaugural event of the UCSC Science & Engineering Library’s 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 World countries.”

In addition to reliable drinking water, people need basic sanitation services--which Haddad noted 2.4 billion of the world’s 6.3 billion people currently lack.

Access to clean water, he stressed, doesn’t 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 sources.

“The technology we need to solve these problems is not that high-tech. It’s 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 systems;

• 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;

• Rampant corruption.

“This is the same litany we’ve been hearing, and it hasn’t changed for 30 years. We need to admit that the model isn’t 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 is addressed.

“Maybe governments aren’t the right entity,” he said. “Maybe the United States and Europe are the anomaly. Maybe we’re 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.

“It’s 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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