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Great Lakes Article:

Water disease could kill 76 mln by 2020 - report

August 19,2002

SAN FRANCISCO - More than 76 million people, mainly children, will die from water-related diseases by 2020 unless urgent action is taken to clean up the planet's water supplies, according to a report issued last week.


The Pacific Institute of Oakland, California, in a report issued in advance of this month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg, said the projected death toll due to dirty water could outstrip the number of lives lost to the global AIDS pandemic over the next two decades.

"As many as 76 million people - mainly children - will die from preventable, water-related diseases by 2020 even if current United Nations goals are reached," said Peter H. Gleick, director of the nonprofit policy research institute.

The United Nations now says that some 1.2 billion people around the globe live without access to safe water and 2.5 billion are without sanitation, vulnerable to deadly diseases ranging from diarrhea and dysentery to cholera, typhoid and insect-borne illness.

The Pacific Institute report examined three different scenarios and concluded that even if United Nations goals to halve the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water are met, between 34 and 76 million people could still perish over the next twenty years.

BAD NEWS AHEAD

"Under the most optimistic scenario we examined, the death toll from water-related disease is still staggering," Gleick said. "This largely hidden tragedy ranks as one of the greatest development failures of the 20th century."

By comparison, the United Nations recently estimated that, unless prevention programs are expanded, AIDS would kill 65 million people by 2020.

"The numbers are comparable," Gleick said in an interview. "In some ways the water problem is worse. These are diseases that we know how to prevent, and its mostly small children who die. It is really a horrific problem that we're not paying adequate attention to."

The Pacific Institute said one cause of the water crisis was the current emphasis by many countries on building large, centralized water systems which cannot be maintained by local resources. Smaller, community based water systems are often ignored in water development plans, it said.

"It is time to change direction, toward a 'soft path' that relies on smaller-scale systems designed, built, and operated by local groups," Gleick said.

Between two and five million people are now believed to die annually because of water-related illness, most of them children in developing countries who fall victim to virulent but preventable diarrheal diseases.

The World Health Organization, in a report issued in 2000, estimated that there are already four billion cases of diarrhea each year, killing as many as five million people.

SCENARIOS

The Pacific Institute report set out several scenarios for future water-related deaths, plotting possible death tolls as a proportion of global population and as a proportion of the projected population without access to adequate water services.

If no action is taken to redress water problems, which range from scarcity and contamination to cross-border water disputes and the impact of global climate change, as many as 135 million people will die, the report said.

The institute's best-case scenario calculates the possible death toll if the official U.N. Millennium targets for improved water services are reached in 2015 and efforts continue to 2020 - and still concluded that between 34 and 76 million people, mostly children, will die by 2020.

Improved water access will not come cheap. An international meeting held in Stockholm this month concluded that global water spending would have to rise by at least 35 percent - or $25 billion annually - if the UN's Millennium goal for water is to be met.

Gleick said that South Africa, host to the Earth Summit, provided one example of successful water access policy, noting that the government has made efforts to involve local communities in water planning.

"They have made a serious commitment to try and provide water for all the population of South Africa," Gleick said. "They haven't gotten there yet, but they are getting there and they are getting there with community scale water systems, working with local governments, and community user groups, to identify the best ways of meeting those needs."

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