The Year in Science: Environment 1997

Not a Pretty Picture

By Kathryn Brown|Thursday, January 01, 1998
Cholera. Plague. Typhoid. Beyond reading headlines in their morning papers, people in Western nations have little contact with these diseases, but in the developing world, where crowded cities often lack sewer systems, they are part of daily life. And the situation is getting worse. According to a report released this past summer by the United Nations Children’s Fund (unicef), almost 3 billion people—about half the world’s population—now live without clean toilets. More than 2 million children die each year from diarrhea-causing diseases, infected by bacteria that could easily have been avoided if they had been flushed down a pipe.

There’s a grim irony to this crisis. At the same time that sanitation has been neglected, clean drinking water—a more politically powerful issue—has not. Over the past seven years, 800 million people have gained access to safe drinking water. During the same time, the number of people without access to clean sanitation rose by 300 million. Sanitation is really more important than drinking water, in terms of the effect on human health, says John Boland, an environmental economist at Johns Hopkins. But drinking water is seen by governments as the number one priority. So that’s where the economic assistance goes.

In a number of poor communities, residents are pooling their resources to build and maintain clean latrines, but it’s doubtful whether such grassroots efforts can solve a crisis that affects 3 billion people. unicef estimates that providing sanitation systems worldwide would cost $68 billion spread over ten years. Meanwhile, urbanization adds to the misery. Over the next 25 years, the populations of cities are predicted to swell by more than 10 percent—leaving that many more people to struggle with filth.
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