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Great Lakes Article:

Millions Look to Global Freshwater Export

Dirty water puts millions at risk for fatal illnesses
Many countries lack clean supply, study finds

08/18/2002
Environmental News Service

As many as 76 million people, mostly children in developing countries, could die from preventable water-related illnesses by 2020 if countries don't rethink water delivery systems, a new study by an Oakland environmental research institute concludes.

Study authors blamed governments in developing countries as well as the United States for failing to provide accessible, affordable methods of delivering clean drinking water to the world's exploding population.

"The numbers are appalling, actually, although the worldwide water community shouldn't be that much surprised," said lead author Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.

Experts estimate 2 million to 5 million people every year die from water- related disease. Victims typically are "the world's poorest people, who don't get a lot of attention," Gleick said.

His study, called "Dirty Water," concluded that development efforts have invested mostly in centralized water delivery systems that are far too large to be managed properly by small communities.

"We've spent the money on the big systems, and it hasn't worked," Gleick said.

In 2000, the United Nations set a goal of reducing by half the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water. The report concludes that even if that goal is met, however, 34 million to 76 million people -- up to twice California's population -- will still die from a water-related illness in the next two decades.

Many of the deaths will come from diarrheal diseases related to sewage infiltrating drinking and bathing sources, fatal worms, dysentery and cholera.

Gleick called the water issue a "hidden tragedy" and "one of the greatest development failures of the 20th century."

One expert in the field wasn't surprised at the study's alarming conclusions.

"They've pointed out clearly that we don't have enough information to make definitive projections, and even at the lower-range projections the mortality is simply unacceptable," said Kara L. Nelson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. "I would venture their low estimates are very low."

Nelson said even in large cities, only a small fraction of the population is served by centralized water delivery systems.

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