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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable; Norling P, Wood-Black F, Masciangioli TM, editors. Water and Sustainable Development: Opportunities for the Chemical Sciences: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004.

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Water and Sustainable Development: Opportunities for the Chemical Sciences: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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1Meeting the Global Water Challenge


White House Council on Environmental Quality1


Today, 1.1 billion people worldwide live in poverty without access to safe drinking water and another 2.4 billion have no access to proper sanitation. Water-related diseases are among the most common cause of illness, affecting mainly the poor in developing countries. In 2000, the estimated mortality due to water- and hygiene-associated diarrheas and other diseases was 2.2 million, the majority of whom are children under the age of 5. For the developing world, achieving clean water and improving sanitation are crucial elements of development and poverty alleviation. It is no wonder that access to clean water and sanitation has become a priority international issue.


The United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Action Plan target two key water-related issues: By 2015, halve the proportion both of people without access to safe drinking water and of people without adequate sanitation. Achieving the goal of access to safe drinking water alone requires addressing the needs of approximately 125,000 people every day until 2015.

The United States is aggressively pursuing several programs to address these basic human needs. At the WSSD in September 2003, the United States launched a nearly $1 billion Water for the Poor Initiative aimed at significantly increasing access in the developing world to clean water and sanitation. A major element of the U.S. initiative is the promotion of safe drinking water systems at the household level.

The 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) world health report attributed 2.2 million deaths annually, mainly from infectious diarrhea, to the lack of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. These constitute the third-highest risk factor for disease and disability in the developing world, after malnourishment and unsafe sexual practices. Meeting the internationally agreed water goal on sanitation requires a frontal attack on eliminating waterborne diseases.


The WHO report has identified the provision of water disinfection capacity at point of use (POU) as the most cost-effective approach to reducing waterborne disease. Regardless of whether or not collected household water is initially of acceptable microbiological quality, it often becomes contaminated with pathogens of fecal origins during transport and storage. Cost-effective technologies already exist to treat water at its POU, including locally produced water disinfectant and dilute chlorine-based solution. A variety of candidate technologies for treatment of household water have been developed and employed in different parts of the world. New technologies are being field-tested. Proctor and Gamble has pioneered the development of a coagulating and water purification tablet called PUR, which has been field-tested in Nicaragua and the Philippines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The product, especially designed for the low-income market, has demonstrated significant reductions in diarrheal disease in test markets. PUR will soon be available to join other products to serve as a tool for point source purification of water.

When these technologies are coupled with education and hygiene programs, field experience shows that a 50 percent or greater reduction in water-related disease can be achieved relatively quickly. According to the WHO (2002) world health report: “There is now conclusive evidence that simple, acceptable, low-cost interventions at the household and community level are capable of dramatically improving the microbial quality of household stored water and reducing the risks of diarrhea disease and health in populations of all ages in the developed and developing world.”


Once the market for these technologies has been established, it tends to grow on its own and becomes self-sustaining. Market development is advanced by social marketing, which involves both behavior change and product development. Social marketing combines education to motivate healthy behavior with the provision of needed health products and services to lower-income persons by marketing through the private sector. The United States has been a leader, along with the United Kingdom, in the social marketing of other health commodities (e.g., condoms, insecticide-treated nets, oral rehydration salts). Test cases show remarkably good results. In Zambia and Madagascar, $600,000 in donor funding has helped create a market for POU technologies that has now reached more than 2 million people. Collaborative efforts by WHO, UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), CDC, and Population Services International (PSI) are operating in more than 20 low-income countries.

In the world today, 4 billion to 7 billion people also face possible water scarcity by 2050 (Figure 1.1). Water shortages in many parts of the world, including the U.S.-Mexico border, underscore the need for effective water management and greater water efficiencies, especially in agricultural use. Forty percent of the world's population depends on the waters of 263 river basins that are shared by two or more countries. Regional security, human resource development, poverty alleviation, and human health needs are all served by effective international cooperation on water resource management. U.S. international financial and technical assistance aims to strengthen institutions for regional water cooperation. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is a partner in the West Africa Water Initiative, a new alliance of 12 organizations worldwide announced at WSSD. USAID has provided $4.4 million to this initiative, complementing more than $36 million in total resources, to invest in small-scale potable water supply and sanitation, hygiene, and water management, primarily in poor rural and urban communities.

FIGURE 1.1. Water scarcity in 2050.


Water scarcity in 2050. SOURCE: UN WWAP (2003).


Domestic U.S. water needs are also a focus of attention. Aging infrastructures, growing U.S. population demands on water, and nonpoint sources of pollution are all stressors on U.S. water resources. Administration efforts are under way to ensure better water resource management, more efficient operation, full cost pricing, and promotion of watershed approaches.

Domestic and international good governance, innovative financing, and applications of science and technology are essential tools to address global water issues. Development and application of simple technologies can go a long way in addressing some of the world's key water and health problems and reducing excessive water use. Global water challenges cross all scientific disciplines. The chemical sciences can be a key player in improving the lives of billions of people around the world.


  1. Hecht Alan D. International efforts to improving access to water and sanitation in the developing world: A good start, but more is needed. Water Policy. 2003 (in press)
  2. Macy L, Quick R. World spotlight: The safe water system—A household-based water quality intervention program for the developing world. Water Conditioning and Purification Magazine. 2002 April;44(4)
  3. UN WWAP (UN World Water Assessment Program). UN World Water Development Report: Water for People, Water for Life. Paris, New York, and Oxford: UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and Berghahn Books; 2003. p. 576.
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis. Washington, DC: 2003. p. 50.
  5. World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2002. [PubMed: 14741909]
  6. WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation. Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report. New York: UNICEF; 2000.


The World Water Forum

Jess Purl, of Chicago Chem Consultants, raised concerns about prospects for future international consensus addressing water issues. He referred back to the World Water Forum (held March 16-23, 2003, in Kyoto, Japan) mentioned earlier by Dr. Hecht and pointed out that among the very disparate groups that attended the forum in Kyoto, there was very little understanding of the basic fundamental issues of sanitation and human health. Mr. Purl was concerned that such inadequacies in the discussion decrease the likelihood for involvement of the current U.S. administration in future negotiations on water issues.

Dr. Hecht agreed that many of the groups weighing in on water issues at the forum lacked a balanced view of threat issues. For example, protests against privatization of water overwhelmed much of the discussion; and yet, he believes that ownership or management of water systems by private companies is not very prevalent throughout the world and is overall not a major issue. However, Dr. Hecht felt that the current administration is committed to water issues, and he is hopeful that it will stay engaged in any international agreements concerning water that come up in the future.

Dr. Hecht reiterated how this administration is looking at new ways to address environmental problems in general that would lead to improvements in water. Resource use and environmental health will be improved through U.S. development strategies to address fundamental infrastructure needs, political infrastructure, corruption, and overall good governance of developing countries. He was not clear on what form these efforts might take, but he believes that there would have to be increases in development aid to make this happen.

Dr. Hecht thinks that water and other resource and environmental issues must be addressed through capacity building, development of systems, and education. He spent a great deal of time at the World Water Forum in bilateral meetings explaining better ways of financing developing countries. However, Dr. Hecht believes that although the issues resonated with these countries, they will need an enormous amount of help from the United States and other development assistance efforts. He hopes that the current administration will support such efforts.

Need Versus Economic Reality

Denny Hjeresen, of the American Chemical Society, brought up a problem associated with addressing the needs of developing countries when there is no viable economic market to do so. He mentioned a meeting he attended several years ago for water ministers from across Africa at which the minister from Senegal stood up and said what they really needed was water treatment at the rate of $1 per person per year that would also be provided for free.

Dr. Hjeresen wanted to know, as the United States makes this commitment to water worldwide, how the economics of providing some of these solutions will be addressed. He talked about the very strong focus on the private sector market in the United States and said that at a dollar per person per year, there will not be many companies interested in working in this area. He pointed out that in looking at the sales growth chart Dr. Hecht presented, 22,000 units at 60 cents per unit is not much economic incentive for most businesses.

Dr. Hecht agreed that it is not likely that the private sector is going to invest heavily in this area because water is not profitable. He also pointed out that public funding is becoming less of an option as developed countries cut back on overseas development assistance. He said that France supports doubling the current $80 billion in overseas development assistance (ODA) provided by G8 countries, whereas the White House opposes any increased funding. Therefore, developing countries will have to look for other financing.

Dr. Hecht recommended that as long as the ODA exists, it should be spent on building capacity and training people to develop financing approaches. He said that there are several examples in which such efforts have been effective, such as in India and South Africa.

Water Quantity Versus Water Quality

Steve Cabaniss, of the University of New Mexico, wanted to know how much of the conflict over water between the United States and Mexico has to do with quantitative water transfer versus water quality and salination issues.

Dr. Hecht responded that both issues are important, however, the water quantity problem is more serious politically because it has its basis in treaty. Under the 1944 Boundary Water Treating Act, water is exchanged between the United States and Mexico. He said that in the last number of years, Mexico has fallen behind its transfers of water to the United States because of a long-term drought. Before the Iraq war, this issue had reached very high political levels and was discussed many times by Presidents Fox and Bush.

Dr. Hecht said that this point of contention continues to be a significant issue, given that there are farmers in Texas managing an approximate $3 billion agricultural industry that remains relatively dependent on Mexican water. Even the National Security Council became involved in U.S.-Mexico water issues and helped facilitate agreement on a transfer of Mexican water to Texas. The problem continues because Mexico still suffers from drought conditions and poor water management. Dr. Hecht said that regardless of the details, the amount of water that has been transferred between these two countries has not met the treaty obligation. This has kept water, along with immigration and other issues, festering and will potentially become a more serious problem in the future.

Water Profitability

Fareed Salem, with ConocoPhillip, said that he has been involved in the water business for a long time and has not earned much money from it. He has observed, however, that technology innovation is a key factor to water and profitability.

Mr. Salem also said that the role of government in sustainability efforts should be facilitation rather than leadership. He thought that a business approach should be taken where communities set up water sustainability business councils. He felt that sustainability efforts should be community driven because the priorities for each community are different.

Dr. Hecht responded by saying that the role of government is very important because someone has to pay for clean water. Water treatment, storage, and transfer must be fairly priced. He brought up the fact that the current pricing of clean water does not reflect these costs and addressing this is essential for solving the looming water problems. Dr. Hecht also expressed concerns that were raised at the talks in Kyoto that the poor will not be well served if governments do not play a role in providing clean water sources. Dr. Hecht agreed that the private sector should play a big role in sustainability efforts together with communities, but major hurdles exist to provide fairly priced water sources that are also profitable.

Water Trouble Spots and Global Impacts

Jan Dell, of CH2M Hill, posed questions dealing with how the effects of poor sanitation or water issues in one region can have global impacts. She wanted to know about water issues that might be analogous to those posed by the movement of air pollution from one region to another. Ms. Dell also commented on her experience working for multinationals and their water supply chains. She asked about the potential link between sanitary treatment in southern China and the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

In response, Dr. Hecht talked about industry's role in addressing global pollution issues. He mentioned a group at the Commerce Department called the Environmental Technologies Trade Advisory Committee that is working with industries developing facilities overseas to get them to think more broadly about their capability as a service to the communities. Dr. Hecht said that great potential exists for these plants—whether they manufacture soda pop, pharmaceuticals, or computer chips—as they process water for their own needs and expand operations to provide water supplies for the local community.

On the issues of treatment, sanitation in China, and the SARS outbreak, Dr. Hecht was not aware of a link. He did highlight the CDC's efforts on international environmental health and sanitation issues and the success of the safe drinking verification programs around the world (www.cdc.gov/safewater). He also pointed out that, surprisingly, China was not part of the bilateral negotiations at the World Water Forum in Kyoto and that most of the focus there was on Africa and Central America.

Population and Water Supply

Don Phipps, of the Orange County Water District, felt that there are inconsistencies in discussing sustainable water supplies when the consuming organism is not a sustainable resource—that is, its population is not constant.

Mr. Phipps mentioned how for years technology has enabled water supplies to be provided in areas with growing populations, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue doing this. He expressed concern that if the world population does not stabilize, it will be impossible to meet water supply needs.

Dr. Hecht agreed that improved use of resources is critical. He went on to say that population impacts water supplies most significantly in areas that are urbanizing rapidly. Currently, he said, Africa is the continent that has the highest rate of urbanization and is the least equipped to deal with it. Finally, Dr. Hecht and Mr. Phipps agreed that addressing the issue of population in some form is a part of the holistic approach necessary to solve the world's water supply needs.

Dr. Hecht is now director for sustainable development in the Office of Research and Development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.



Dr. Hecht is now director for sustainable development in the Office of Research and Development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Copyright © 2004, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK83739
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