WHO News

Water and health, hand-in-hand for a day


To raise awareness of the connection between water and health,WHO was chosen as lead agency for World Water Day on 22 March. Scores of events, ranging from Internet-based discussions among students to ice-hockey games, music video releases, and the more traditional seminars and awards, took place in countries around the world. World Water Day has been celebrated annually since it was first conceived at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. This is the first year that WHO has acted as primary sponsor.

‘‘Access to safe water is a universal need ... and a basic human right,’’ WHO director-general, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, said in a video released on the World Water Day web site (www.worldwaterday.org). More than one billion people —18% of the world’s population — do not have access to ‘‘improved sources’’ of water and 2.4 billion do not have access to basic sanitation, she noted. Consequently, more than 3 million people die each year from water-related diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria. Millions of others suffer from diseases such as dysentery, which can be transmitted by contaminated water, and trachoma, which is associated with lack of readily accessible water.

A lack of clean water is often linked to poverty. ‘‘The absence of a safe water supply contributes to an estimated 80% of disease and death in the developing world,’’ said UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. ‘‘Clean water is a luxury that remains out of the reach of many.’’

A WHO report, Water for Health — Taking Charge, released on World Water Day, recommends several low-tech methods for improving water supplies and health in developing countries. ‘‘Business as usual is no longer an option,’’ Brundtland wrote in the report’s foreword. ‘‘We don’t have enough time to just wait for large infrastructure investments to provide these basic services. Several simple interventions are available.’’

The report recommends chlorination, both in communities and for individual households. In one island country, Maldives, where chlorination was used in wells and rainwater collection tanks, deaths from diarrhoea were eliminated, according to the report. Another recommendation is for use of solar water disinfection, or SODIS, whereby water in plastic bottles is disinfected by exposure to the sun for at least 2 hours. A third recommendation is a change in behaviour. Handwashing with soap, for example, can dramatically lower rates of disease.

Catherine Dold, Boulder, Colorado, USA

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland
E-mail: bulletin@who.int