Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Three in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water at home during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
UNICEF said that 40% of the world’s population – or 3 billion people – do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. The number is much higher in less developed countries, where nearly three-quarters go without.
This was “unacceptable” that the most vulnerable communities are unable to use the simplest of methods to protect themselves and their loved ones from the dreaded virus, deplored Kelly Ann Naylor, associate director of water, sanitation, and hygiene at UNICEF.
“The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of hand hygiene in disease prevention,” Naylor said. “It has also stressed a pre-existing problem for many: handwashing with soap remains out of reach for millions of children where they’re born, live and learn.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus echoed the same concern. “Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, yet millions of people across the world lack access to a reliable, safe supply of water,” he said in a statement.
But it’s not only at home where water is non-existing – even in health care facilities.
“Working in a health care facility without water, sanitation and hygiene is akin to sending nurses and doctors to work without personal protective equipment,” Tedros said. “Water supply, sanitation, and hygiene in health care facilities are fundamental to stopping COVID-19.”
There are many people who think that washing hands frequently is a waste of time. What they don’t know is that hands are host to many bacteria and viruses. You may not believe this, but according to several scientific studies, one square centimeter of skin holds roughly 1,500 bacteria.
The website buzzle.com reiterates: “Every human being comes in contact with germs and bacteria in their daily life. These harmful microorganisms are present all around us like on the door knobs, faucets, light switches, stair railings, etc. People touch these things while doing their routine work, without thinking much about it and with the same hands touch their face, eyes, nose and sometimes eat food, too. While performing these acts, the germs and bacteria get into our body, causing several diseases.”
The current pandemic has made the water crisis more apparent.
“Even before the pandemic, millions of children and families were suffering without clean water, safe sanitation, and a place to wash their hands,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “The time has come to dramatically accelerate our efforts to provide every child and family with the most basic needs for their health and well-being, including fighting off infectious diseases like COVID-19.”
The water crisis is no longer shocking. It has already been predicted. The Nobel-prize winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that by 2080 nearly half the world’s population will be without clean water.
“The necessary sense of urgency is lacking,” said the New York-based United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in a statement. “The facts have been staring us in the face for years. While demand increases, the annual available fresh water supply per inhabitant is regularly decreasing and is expected to fall to an average 4,800 cubic meters by the year 2025 against 7,300 cubic meters in 1995.”
However, the water crisis may come sooner than what the UN body has predicted. “We are fast exhausting our surface water supplies – water consumption and use now exceed the capability of the system to renew itself,” says Terry Leckie, one of Australia’s leading water industry experts and a passionate advocate of water reform. “And the majority of groundwater sources are either already contaminated or soon will be.”
It is happening now in the Philippines, where rapid population growth over the last century has been a major factor in increasing water usage. Experts claim that with an annual population rate of 2 percent to 2.3 percent, the Philippines would be facing a water shortage by 2025.
The population datasheet of the Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau showed the Philippines was home to 96.2 million people as of mid-2012. By mid-2025, there will be about 117.8 million Filipinos living in 30 million hectares, the total land area of the country.
Currently, the water demands – and shortages – of many cities throughout the country are expanding. In a study done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, nine major cities were listed as “water-critical areas.” These were Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Davao, Baguio, Angeles, Bacolod, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, and Zamboanga.
“The rapid urbanization of the Philippines, with more than 2 million being added to the urban population annually, is having a major impact on water resources,” notes the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its Asian Water Development Outlook some years back.
In Metro Manila, for instance, residents often complain of a lack of water during the summer months. In some parts of the metropolis, the water supply situation reaches a vulnerable state that the little amount of water some residents get is not enough even for emergency purposes like cooking and drinking.
Aside from rapid population growth, the water crisis in the Philippines can also be traced to environmental degradation and pollution. According to an ADB study, only about 33 percent of river systems are classified as suitable public water supply sources, and up to 58 percent of groundwater is contaminated.
Of the 457 water bodies classified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), only 51 percent meet the 1996 water quality standards. Sixteen rivers are considered “biologically dead” during dry months.
In addition, wasteful and inefficient use of water, saltwater intrusion, high non-revenue water levels due to leaks and illegal connections, and denudation of forest cover are placing major strains on water resources. “Combined with growing population pressures, it is becoming more difficult to provide basic water services,” the ADB study surmised.
Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, believes water problems will be right there with climate change as a threat to the human future. More importantly, higher global temperatures will worsen the current water problems.
“Although the two are related, water has no substitutes. We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else,” said the head of the group that seeks to save freshwater.
The majority of the world’s water is used for agriculture or food production. The Virtual Water App (http://virtualwater.eu/) is a quick way to learn how much water is used in the production of beef (4,650 liters of water for 300 grams of beef steak) and chocolates (2,400 liters per 100 grams of chocolate). It takes 1,000 tons of water to grow one ton of rice grain.
“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” points out Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project. “It is the basis of life.”
“As water is an absolutely vital resource, at the center of life itself, it is a key integrating factor in the environment. Without sustainable water management to ensure that there are sufficient supplies of clean, safe water, the health of ecosystems and those who depend on them, especially people, suffer,” said Dr. Klaus Toepfer during his term as executive director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program.
Next to air, water is the element most necessary for survival. Water makes up more than 60 percent of your body weight. Proteins make up only 18% while fats encompass 15%, minerals 4%, carbohydrates 2%, and vitamins less than one percent.
Your brain contains 74% water, blood contains 83% water, lean muscle has 75% water, and bone has 22% water. A lack of water affects everything from your digestive tract to your immune system. It also helps regulate your body temperature.
A household of five needs at least 120 liters per day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning, according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental group.
A person needs at least 24 liters of water daily or one liter per hour. Even when he breathes, he still needs water. “Our lungs must be moist to take in oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide,” wrote Leroy Perry in a Reader’s Digest article. “It is possible to lose half a liter of liquid each day just by exhaling.”
Only 2.5 percent of the water that covers over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is considered freshwater. And only 1.3 percent is available for human use since most of the freshwater is trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas. Freshwater is drawn either from wells (tapping underground sources called aquifers) or from surface flows (like lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs).
“There is no more water on earth now than there was 2,000 years ago,” notes the US National Wildlife Federation, which has been working for years to protect water resources not only in the United States but throughout the world as well. “This limited supply of freshwater must meet the needs of a human population that has tripled in the last century and continues to grow at almost 80 million people per year.”
“Whiskey’s for drinkin’,” American author Mark Twain once wrote. “But water is for fightin’ over.” Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, agreed: “The world has got a very big water problem. It will be the progenitor of more wars than oil.”