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5 Deadly Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply

World Water Day is a chance to stop and realize that humanity is facing a frightening water crisis.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Dragana Gerasimoski


If you brushed your teeth this morning or flushed the toilet or had a cup of coffee, consider yourself lucky. Actually, if you turned on your tap and potable water freely came out, consider yourself truly blessed. Because so many of us in the United States are in this situation it can be easy to forget that nearly 900 million other people aren't so lucky. It can be easy to forget that globally we face a frightening water crisis. And it can be hard to notice that even here in the US there are dire threats to our water supply right now.

The people hardest hit by the water crisis are in developing countries -- places it is easy for many world leaders (and the rest of us) to overlook. And even the number of those without clean water -- last tallied at 884 million -- can be hard to grasp. Here's another way of looking at it: if you take that number and translate it into the population of developed countries, the people living in the world today without access to clean drinking water would equal all the people living in the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia and Norway.

Like our economic, food, health and climate crises, if you're a person of color and/or poor, you'll be hardest hit. According to the  United Nations, if you are a poor person living in a slum you're likely to pay five to 10 times more for water than wealthy people living in the same city. And so too, are women disproportionately affected because they are the ones responsible for getting water each day in most developing countries -- work that often means hours of difficult labor under dangerous conditions. 

In a story for National Geographic, Tina Rosenberg writes about Aylito, a 25-year-old woman who has to walk an hour each way to a dirty stream to collect water for her family -- three times a day. Seventy percent of the people in her community have a waterborne disease and even the nearest health center often lacks clean water. When an NGO proposes a project that could bring clean water and sanitation to within steps of her home, Aylito's response is heartbreaking. Rosenberg writes, "She has never dared to think that someday life could change for the better -- that there could arrive a metal spigot, with dignity gushing out the end."

With that sentence, Rosenberg captures the essence of the water crisis; it is about life and death, but it is also about the quality of our lives and our human dignity. Who we are as people is tied to our access to water throughout our lives. From our birth to our breakfast this morning, our lives have been shaped by how much water we have, where we got it from, and how clean it is. And depending on where we live, the water problems we may face will look vastly different -- from drought to pollution to poor management.

Here in the US, clean, affordable, safe drinking water faces five threats:

1. Racial and Economic Inequalities

While an international law recognizes the human right to water, unfortunately there is no binding enforcement and in the US there are no laws guaranteeing that you'll have clean water or that you'll be protected from water shut-offs if you can't afford it. One of the areas that has been hardest hit is Detroit, a city that is majority African American. The unemployment rate is 1 in 6 and in some neighborhoods as high as 50 percent. As a result, water use went down too -- Detroit's water utility supplied 20 percent less water in 2009 than it did in 2003.

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