Although estimates vary, some authorities suggest that as many as 40% of the world's seven billion people lack ready access to clean water. About half of the world's consumers living in industrialized nations simply take such access for granted, of course, and free-flowing, inexpensive hot and cold potable water piped directly to the home has become a hallmark of modern civilized living. As the debate over how best to address the other fundamental environmental issues that are currently facing humankind such as global warming and peak oil continue, it would appear that insufficient attention is being dedicated to the plight of the remaining disadvantaged three billion people living in developing nations today who do not have access to clean water. Indeed, in what has been termed a "silent emergency,' hundreds of millions of women and children are especially vulnerable to the ongoing access to clean water. To gain some fresh insights into the current situation with respect to access to clean water for the world's growing population, this essay reviews the relevant literature to determine where the need is most pronounced and what steps are being taken to address this issue in recent years. A discussion concerning these steps and their implications for the future is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, more than 40% of the global population lacks access to basic sanitation facilities and more than one billion do not have ready access to safe sources of drinking water. The report, "Meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) drinking water and sanitation target - A mid-term assessment of progress," identified two significant predictions on reaching the 2015 goals, based on progress to date:
1. The global sanitation target will be missed by half a billion people -- most of them in rural Africa and Asia -- allowing waste and disease to spread, killing millions of children and leaving millions more on the brink of survival.
2. The severe human and economic toll of missing the sanitation target could be prevented by closing the gap between urban and rural populations and by providing simple hygiene education (Hartl, Hajaj & Chinyama, 2010).
On the one hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the progress to date indicates that current goals of reducing the number of people without access to an improved drinking water source to 800 million by 2015 are on track, with more than a billion people having gain such access since 1999 (Hartl et al., 2010). In fact, significant progress has been made in South Asia, India and China, but many African nations languish in a vicious cycle of poverty and little or no access to clean water. In this regard, Hartl and his associates at WHO point out that, "While countries such as Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Malawi and Tanzania have all increased drinking water coverage by over 50 per cent, the region's overall drinking water coverage has increased by only nine percentage points since 1990 - to 58 per cent - leaving 288 million people still with no choice but to rely on water that could leave them sick or dead" (2010, p. 2).
On the other hand, there has been some additional progress in terms of the numbers of people worldwide who now have access to clean water piped directly to their homes. While many impoverished regions of the world remain lacking such access, Hartl et al. add that, "In addition to the encouraging progress made by individual countries across the globe, much of the new coverage in developing countries has come from water piped directly into homes. Roughly half of the world's population now drinks piped water" (2010, p. 2).
Making the investments today that are needed to more drastically reduce the ongoing disparities in access to clean water, regarded by the United Nations and natural law as being a natural right, therefore represents a timely and valuable enterprise (Cheema, 2005). In fact, the cost-benefit analyses of such initiatives indicate that beyond the humanitarian aspects that are involved, there are some strictly pragmatic issues involved as well. The argument can easily be made that it is in the developed nation of the world's best interests to promote access to clean water because of the enormous costs that are associated with the lack of such access otherwise. In this regard, Bolnick (2009) emphasizes that, "Developing nations' burden of disease is heavily weighted toward infectious disease, diseases of childbirth, and accidents. Much of this disease burden is amenable to basic public health intervention. Clean water, sewage treatment and other simple interventions that we in developed nations take for granted can greatly reduce these health problems" (p. 2). Likewise, Hartl et al. also point out that, "WHO and UNICEF stress that substantive economic benefits will result from an increased amount of investment in clean water in impoverished regions of the world: "Piped water into the home is associated with the greatest improvements in household health, and frees women and girls from the burden of water carrying, giving them greater time for work, family and school" (2010, p. 2). Indeed, current estimates suggest that the return on investments in providing clean water are significant, and range between $3 and $34 for every dollar invested depending on what type of water system and region in which the investment takes place is involved (Hartl et al., 2010).
Given the enormity of the problem and the hefty return on investment that is available to the international community, the ongoing lack of progress in many sub-Saharan African regions is confounding and most likely relates to a matter of priorities on the part of the international community, but with the bottom-line impact being that many of the currently disadvantaged women and children in these countries remain at particularly high risk in perpetuating this vicious cycle of poverty and lack of clean drinking water and basic sanitation facilities. This lack of priorities on the part of the international community in general and the Western world and U.S. In particular, though, also appears to relate to the lack of sufficient motivation to make the tough choices that are needed to effect meaningful change today. As Gilbert, Uzodike and Isike (2009) point out, "As recent as 1995, U.S. policymakers gave peripheral considerations to the geo-strategic importance of Africa to U.S. national interest in the 21st century. In its 1995 United States Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, the Department of Defense stated clearly that the U.S. had 'very little traditional strategic interest in Africa'" (p. 264). Since that characterization was issued in 1995, a great deal has happened to change the face of the geopolitical sphere even further, including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the resulting bloody global war on terrorism by the United States and its erstwhile allies.
The net effect of these events has been to further distance the strategic interests of the West from the impoverished nations of Africa. The relationship between poverty and lack of access to basic sanitation facilities and clean drinking water is well documented. In this regard, Gilbert and his colleagues report that, "[Almost 42%] of Africans live on less than one dollar a day and this translates to about 323.8 million people, the Gross National Income per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa is $746; barely 42% have access to clean water in rural areas while as much as 63% of people lack access to basic sanitation facilities, and 2.3 million are refugees" (p. 265). Moreover, some analyst predict that unless aggressive action taken to address the basic sanitation and clean drinking water needs of the sub-Saharan population soon, the problem could double by as early as 2025 (de…