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Water and the Millennium Challenge - Guest Editorial by Peter McCafferty

Water and the Millennium Challenge - Guest Editorial by Peter McCafferty

Date Published: 13-Mar-15

Each year, millions of people die as a result of unclean water. A problem often exacerbated by poor waste management and malnutrition. 

Sadly, these numbers are often made up of children or the elderly. In developing countries, it is predominantly children under the age of five who often die from diarrhoea, contracted from water sources. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2009), around two million children die from water related illness each year. By comparison, according to the Ugandan Water and Sanitation Resource Centre (Why Water, 2010), approximately 310,000 people died in Africa as a result of armed conflicts in 1998. Cholera, in particular, has increasingly become a problem: the prevalence of the infectious disease rose by around 79% between 1998 and 2006. It is estimated there are currently over 100,000 people infected in Zimbabwe alone (Schnabel, 2013).

Following the United Nations Millennium summit in 2000 all 189 National members of the UN and more than 23 International organisations agreed to focus on and achieve eight primary goals by 2015:

  1. Eradicating extreme hunger and poverty
  2. Achieving universal primary education
  3. Promoting gender equality and empower women
  4. Reducing child mortality
  5. Improving maternal health
  6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensuring environmental sustainability
  8. Developing a global partnership for development.

Water cuts across many of these goals and most obviously impacts on goal 7.

For goal 7, the sub-goals are:

  • Integrate the principles of sustainable development in country policies and program and reverse the loss of environmental resources. 
  • Reduce biodiversity loss, including (among other things) reducing the proportion of total water resources used.
  • Halve by 2015 the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
  • Improve the lives of the world’s more than 100 million slum dwellers.

The challenge lies in the basic reality of the water cycle - we are not producing any more water. This fact is sometimes described as “the water that you are drinking today was once the tears of dinosaurs”. This may sound corny but the statement illustrates the simple nature and vital importance of the water cycle, that almost every primary school child is taught.

For the Millenium Development Goals to progress it is important to be aware of the potential for disputes that arise from a redistribution of limited resources. Water distribution is not an area that is conflict free. The United Nations now recognises that water disputes can occur where opposing nations have conflicts of interest in water use - public or private access.

In many third world countries it is water supply that is a key goal. However, in many developed countries the challenge of water supply may have been overcome, but the necessity of water quality  remains. A recent report (Berstein, Business Insider Australia, February 2015) indicates that even in California, where it would be expected that water quality is managed appropriately, there were more than 1,000 violations of federal water quality standards last year. “The most common violations were for high levels of such contaminants as arsenic, nitrates, radioactive minerals and perchlorates.” These were commonly from natural sources, exacerbated by California’s current drought.

Chemistry is vital in monitoring small changes in water so that problematic levels of contaminants can quickly be identified before they reach levels of concern. This is of particular importance to major water suppliers undergoing new replenishment, treatment and research programs. For example, in Western Australia the Water Corporation’s innovative Ground Water Replenishment Project required extensive testing to ensure that water pumped back into the water table was free of dangerous contaminants. ChemCentre worked with the Water Corporation throughout this project developing techniques to examine almost 400 different contaminants, some at levels 1,000 times lower than current health guideline levels. This resulted in ChemCentre being awarded the 2013 Australian Water Association’s WA Water Award for its “Project H2O: Chemistry Research to Ensure Community Acceptance of Sustainable Water Reuse.”

If you have enjoyed reading my guest editorials please keep an eye on future newsletters for further installments.

-Peter McCafferty
Director, Scientific Services Division


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