World Water Day, held annually on March 22, brings renewed attention to the importance of clean water to everyday life and the necessity of global water conservation, especially given the scarcity of natural freshwater resources and increasing global demand. Even in the United States, not traditionally considered a water-scarce country, one out of every three U.S. counties is predicted to face a greater risk of water shortage by 2050.
World Water Day 2012, coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, highlights the link between water and food security. While significant progress has been made towards increasing access to safe drinking water, much work remains. The World Health Organization recently announced that the world has already met the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to water by 2015. However, 1 billion people worldwide–1 out of every 7 individuals–live in chronic hunger, partially due to water shortages.
The connection between hunger and water shortage may not be immediately obvious, but most of the water that people “drink” each day is actually in the food that they eat. Food production accounts for 70% of all water use, and as the world population continues to grow, so will the demand for freshwater resources. The world population is expected to increase by over 2 billion by 2050; if water resources cannot produce enough food to support the current population of 7 billion, how will we feed over 9 billion people with even less water in 2050?
Experts believe that the answer to this question lies in reduced food waste and increased agricultural research and development (R&D) to be able to produce more high-quality food with less water. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the leading government agencies working to improve food security by supporting innovative agricultural research.
Access to safe drinking water could help reduce the 1.5 million deaths that occur in children every year due to diarrheal diseases. Photo credit: Flickr photo by waterdotorg, 2011
In addition, USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are supporting global health R&D efforts to address water, sanitation and hygiene challenges which cause a heavy burden of diseases in many developing countries and impede social and economic development. One example of a highly cost-effective intervention developed by the CDC which is saving lives worldwide is the safe water system (SWS). The SWS, which can reduce rates of diarrheal diseases by 30-50% in high-risk communities, is based on the simple technology of adding an inexpensive chlorine bleach solution to household drinking water to disinfect it before use. It also includes education on safe storage of treated water and best hygiene and sanitation practices.
While great progress has been made in increasing access to safe water, there is still more work to do, and the global community is lagging behind in efforts to improve food security, hygiene and sanitation. Increased investment is needed in R&D that aims to find cost-effective ways to improve these basic conditions. Eighty-eight percent of deaths from diarrheal diseases worldwide can be attributed to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene – the development and usage of health technologies can prevent these diseases and save lives.