SAN FRANCISCO — As many as 76 million people — mostly children — could die from water-related diseases by 2020 if changes aren’t made worldwide in the way communities develop their water systems and policies, according to a California think tank.
If those projections are correct, the deaths would exceed the number of people expected to die from AIDS over the same span.
According to a report released Friday by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, even if the world meets a United Nations Millennium Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water, between 34 million and 76 million people could still die in the next 18 years.
The diseases that the report says will afflict these people include cholera, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. More people die of diarrheal diseases than other water-related diseases, and children are extremely vulnerable to them.
“All of these diseases are associated with our failure to provide clean water,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, director of the institute. “I think it’s terribly bleak, especially because we know what needs to be done to prevent these deaths. We’re doing some of it, but the efforts that are being made are not aggressive enough.”
The problem is many people, especially those in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, don’t have access to clean water or basic sanitation, Gleick said.
While most of the deaths are projected to occur in developing nations, Joan Rose, professor of water microbiology at the University of South Florida, said every country is vulnerable. She pointed to a recent outbreak of E. coli in Canada that came from a contaminated well and killed some people.
“We look at our political agreements like NAFTA, and they’ve been economically beneficial to South America because we have allowed them to export their vegetables to the United States,” she said. “But none of that finance has been reinvested in sanitation, and in fact, we may be getting vegetables — we already have — that bring diseases into the United States.”
Protection of the water supply is a global and environmental issue, as well, Rose said.
“What we’ve forgotten is the water they’re getting, if it’s, say, from a river, is really part of a watershed,” she said. “If your upstream neighbor is polluting your water supply, there needs to be some coordination beyond the community in terms of protection.”
There aren’t good numbers to determine how many people die each year due to water-related diseases, because medical reporting varies in different parts of the world, and the diseases sometimes aren’t diagnosed, Gleick said. The World Health Organization estimated in 2000 that 2.2 million people die each year from diarrheal diseases alone. Other estimates that include various water-related diseases put that number higher than 5 million a year.
U.N. figures say 1.1 billion people worldwide live without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack proper sanitation.
And in January, at the request of the U.N. Environment Program, the institute completed a study that found the world’s freshwater resources are more threatened now than they have ever been.