When you open the tap in your kitchen to fill the kettle, how often do your thoughts turn to the journey that water has travelled to reach your morning cup of tea. Or indeed, do you ever consider the journey you yourself took in order to have access to that water.

A Long Walk to Water

The remarkable book A Long Walk to Water, written by Linda Sue Parker, is true tale of two characters whose lives are interwoven by their search for water. Nya’s story is one of a young village girl from part of the Nuer tribe in Sudan from whose job it was to walk several kilometres twice a day to collect water for the family to use for drinking, cooking and washing. Her daily journey to water is probably in stark contrast to your own!

The novel is an emotional exploration of how the lack of water can affect communities both in terms of their health, and their feelings of security and safety.

Access to clean water

For many communities in the developing world, water poverty is not just about the accessibility of water, but even more importantly, how clean that water is.

Contaminated water can have serious adverse effects on humans. At best it can cause nausea, diarrhoea, intestinal cramps, and stomach pains. At worst, it can lead to cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, kidney and liver problems, and ultimately death. According to UNICEF, 771 million people currently do not have clean water in close proximity to their home (and by that we mean within walking distance, not in the same building). Diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor toilets kills one child under the age of five every two minutes.

Lost economic opportunities

While the cost to human health and life is often cited as a consequence of water poverty and water contamination, what is often overlooked is the loss of economic productivity. The World Health Organisation claims that for every $1 that can be invested in water and toilets, this will see a return on investment of $4 in increased productivity.

Reports indicate that the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities is responsible for as much as 10% of diseases across the globe – diseases that could be prevented with adequate facilities. Those who are most affected are women and girls, who end up unable to get to school, receive an decent education, and create opportunities for them to earn an income and create some degree of independence. A world Bank report stated that the water crises eliminated one third of global economic growth.

Sources of contamination

Much of the contamination is caused by the compounding effects of man adding chemicals, such as nitrogen, to water to improve its nutrient content for plant and animal growth and increase agricultural production. Unfortunately, nitrogen is actually detrimental to human health, decreasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. High exposure has been linked to hypothyroidism, thyroid cancer and chronic digestive illnesses. 

The nitrogen gets into the water through rainfall running off crops and into groundwater. As the world population has increased, the world is exceeding its safe levels for nitrogen in the environment. How this effects the economy is through a lower life expectancy, its affect on local tourism, and recurring health issues that affect individual productivity. One study found that exposure to nitrogen in early childhood can lead to around nine per cent loss of wages in adulthood. If you are in a community that relies on a water source heavily contaminated with nitrogen, that is a heavy loss of productivity compounded into one small area.

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