By Chantal Cheung

When considering Earth — a planet with 70% of its surface made up of water — the accessibility of safe water is surprisingly and disproportionately low.

Image supplied by © Plumbing Africa | Rory Macnamara

Image supplied by © Plumbing Africa | Rory Macnamara

In fact, 1 in 3 people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than 2 billion people are not provided with adequately managed sanitation services. While these statistics are helpful in contextualizing the scope of the issue of access to safe water, there is a tendency to replace people with numbers and grow desensitised to the true underlying implications. To avoid this common misstep, it is perhaps fitting to examine the situation through a new lens — not focusing on what is lacking, but what could be had. What would happen if everyone had access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation? How would the global community be impacted by this change?

It is often taken for granted that access to clean water and good health are inextricably tied, but the impact of having water is best examined by breaking down the many ways in which these two matters overlap. Starting from the most immediate effect, water is involved in many basic bodily functions, such as regulating body temperature and flushing out waste. Thus, not having enough water can have detrimental effects on one’s well-being. In fact, dehydration is known to cause fatigue and dizziness, and if left untreated, can lead to more severe consequences such as heatstroke, kidney failure, seizures, and hypovolemic shock. Even when access to water is established, the cleanliness of the water introduces a new potential health risk to consider. In communities near industrial complexes or agricultural land, wastewater introduces biological and chemical pollutants to drinking water. Contaminated water is linked to transmission of diseases including but not limited to cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.

Furthermore, leaching from water supply components such as lead pipes can contaminate previously filtered water and result in lead poisoning — stunting physical and cognitive development, and even leading to death. Beyond water used for drinking, it is also involved in hygienic practices such as hand washing and showering. The current lack of access to water means that approximately 40% of people do not have hand washing facilities in their own home. Upon considering the myriad ways in which water contributes to health and hygiene, it becomes abundantly clear that providing access to safe drinking water will elevate global health and aid in the eradication of preventable diseases.

A world in which every human has access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation would also have a robust economy with many opportunities for innovation. Perhaps due to the initial investment associated with providing everyone with safe water, the long term economic benefits are often overlooked. However, for every USD1 that is invested in water and sanitation, there is an estimated USD4 of economic return because of reduced health costs and augmented productivity. To put into perspective the impact of increased wellbeing and sanitation, it is projected that there will be more than USD18.5-billion in economic benefits each year from avoided deaths alone. Furthermore, reducing spending on managing preventable diseases means that funds can be reallocated toward medical innovations, social services, and other infrastructure. Providing access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation will also lead to an increase in societal productivity. Focusing on the United States alone, it is estimated that there will be a USD220-billion increase in annual economic activity, and investment in services that make water available would also sustain more than a million jobs with wages significantly above the national average. Therefore, offering access to clean water to every human would significantly improve both local and global economies.

Now, while a rich and healthy world sounds rather appealing, an overemphasis on instrumental value may lead to unintentional commodification of water accessibility. Thus, to develop a more nuanced view, it is of utmost importance that social implications are also considered and discussed. After all — as with most other social issues — marginalised groups face the brunt of the consequences. An example of such a social impact is made clear when considering the role of women in water collection. A study of 24 sub-Saharan countries revealed that more than 13 million adult females were responsible for water collection. Aside from the journey to community wells or streams being both dangerous and tiring, it also takes away from valuable time that could be spent on education. In fact, the disparity in education between men and women who reside in communities with poor access to water is due in part to this limitation. Alleviating women and young girls from this burden will afford them more opportunities to attend school and get more involved in their community.

Another example of a group that is disproportionately affected by the lack of safe water are African Americans, who are primarily affected using lead service lines. While studies have shown that irregular levels of lead in water presents serious health risks, a combination of factors including disenfranchisement and environmental racism means that lead pipes continue to be used in certain communities. Unfortunately, an analysis of blocks exposed to lead service lines revealed, on average, higher concentrations of Black families. By examining the social cascades of water accessibility, it becomes clear that clean water not only saves lives, but it also helps to alleviate some of the social imbalances in society — paving the way toward a more equitable world.

While this entire discussion considers a hypothetical version of the world where water is accessible to all, many of the benefits outlined above can and do exist beyond the realm of imagination. In fact, a lot of what is currently known about the benefits of access to safe water is grounded in successful small-scale implementations of effective water-related policies. It is known that certain waterborne diseases are preventable, because in many communities they were prevented. It is known that increased water accessibility improves education for women, because in communities where rudimentary plumbing was installed, significant improvements were observed. While there will undoubtedly be challenges along the way, small steps are achievable. And perhaps someday — someday soon — the world mentioned above will no longer be a description of what could be, but a description of what is, a testament to yet another glorious triumph of mankind.