GENEVA (Reuters) – Water-borne diseases kill at least 3.4 million people every year, making them collectively more lethal than AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.
To mark World Water Day on Friday, health, environmental and humanitarian agencies urged greater international effort to improve the water, hygiene and sanitation conditions of the world’s poor.
“Water is in the top rank of hazards to human health,” said Jamie Bartram, Coordinator of the WHO’s Water, Sanitation and Health Program. “This is a big health problem and the people who are really suffering are the poor in developing countries, especially children.”
An international conference in Bonn last December called for action to halve the numbers without sanitation by 2015, but agencies said more could be done sooner.
United Nations figures show that a sixth of the world’s population lacks adequate access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people live without basic sanitation.
“That has a tremendous impact on mortality and living standards,” said Robert Fraser who coordinates water and sanitation efforts in East Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Diarrhea is the major killer, with 2.2 million people dying every year from related diseases, including cholera.
But disability and incapacitating illnesses, in part caused by contaminated water even if they are not termed water-borne diseases, are ruining the lives of many others in thedeveloping world.
Better water management and sanitation can reduce the transmission of diseases like schistosomiasis — in which parasites lodge themselves in the stomach or bladder — and malaria.
In Bangladesh, there are fears that 35-77 million people could be at risk from arsenic-contaminated water which produces debilitating skin lesions and can cause cancer.
Bartram said there were many other “silent threats,” including excessive fluoride in the water supply in China, India and the Rift Valley in Africa. In China alone, 30 million people suffer crippling skeletal fluorosis.
There are also six million cases around the world of irreversible blindness due to trachoma, an eye infection caused by dirty water and poor hygiene conditions.
The IFRC, which educates local communities on health and hygiene and helps them design wells and construct family latrines, believes that for just $15 per person, it can provide the necessary skills and knowledge to ensure a clean water supply for life.
“What we need to do is massively scale up our efforts. Yes, we need money, expertise and partnerships but all this will only work with the empowerment of the local community and motivating people to help themselves,” Fraser said.
“We know who can be targeted and what can be done. There are tools available now. We should not have to wait for the big dream of everyone having good water sanitation,” Bartram said.