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In recognition of World Water Day, observed every March 22, this issue of Civil Connection highlights just a few of the many ongoing efforts by civil engineers, researchers, students, and professionals to improve drinking water resources and sanitation, particularly in developing countries. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated an annual observance of World Water Day beginning in 1993 to draw attention to the more than 1 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water. This year, almost 70 U.S. cities officially recognized or held World Water Day events.

In 2003, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the years 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action: Water for Life (www.un.org/waterforlifedecade). According to the UN, "The primary goal of the program is to promote efforts to fulfill international commitments made on water and water-related issues … including the Millennium Development Goals to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015 and to stop unsustainable exploitation of water resources."

Another goal was added to the Water for Life decade in 2002: Halve the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation.

The theme for World Water Day 2007 (www.unwater.org/wwd07) was "Coping with Water Scarcity." At a World Water Day observance at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf called coping with water scarcity the "challenge of the 21st century."

"As population grows and development needs call for increased allocations of water for cities, agriculture, and industries," he said, "the pressure on water resources intensifies, leading to tensions, conflicts among users, and excessive strain on the environment."

Following are selected global statistics included on a UN factsheet on water and sanitation:

  • 1.1 billion people (18 percent of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water.
  • 2.6 billion people (42 percent of the world’s population) lack access to basic sanitation.
  • Water withdrawals for irrigation have increased by more than 60 percent since 1960. About 70 percent of all available freshwater is used for irrigation in agriculture. However, because of inefficient systems, particularly in developing countries, 60 percent of this water is lost to evaporation or is returned to rivers and groundwater aquifers.
  • Water use increased six-fold during the 20th Century, more than twice the rate of population growth.
  • By 2025, it is estimated that about two-thirds of the world’s population (about 5.5 billion people) will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress.
  • In developed countries, as much as 30 percent of fresh water supplies are lost because of leakage, and in some major cities, losses can run as high as 40 percent to 70 percent.
  • Even if the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation is cut in half by 2015, 1.8 billion people still will lack adequate sanitation because of population growth.
  • About 90 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial wastes in developing countries are discharged into water courses without treatment, often polluting the usable water supply.
  • More than 2.2 million people, mostly in developing countries, die each year from diseases associated with poor water and sanitary conditions; that’s more than 42,000 deaths each week.
  • At any time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases.
  • A World Health Organization cost-benefit analysis showed that every U.S. dollar invested in improved drinking water and sanitation services can yield economic benefits of US $4 to US $34, depending on the region.

The complete UN factsheet is available at www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/factsheet.html.