Clean water: a neglected research priority

Copyright: M. Marzot/FAO

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Providing adequate supplies of clean drinking water may not be the most exciting challenge facing scientists working in developing countries. But it is certainly one of the most pressing — and, potentially, the most rewarding.

Few issues exemplify more dramatically the gap between the potential of modern science and technology to meet the needs of the developing world, and the failure to fully realise that potential, than the lack of a clean and safe supply of water. In most of the developed world, the constant availability of clean water is virtually taken for granted (even if its purity is sometimes questioned). In the developing world it is the reverse; it is estimated, for example, that more than 1 billion people about one sixth of the world's population do not have access to safe drinking water, and figures published this week in the run-up to the Fourth World Water Forum, taking place in Mexico City, suggest that this number could quadruple by 2025.

Equally concerning is the fact that 2.5 billion people currently lack adequate sanitation and that, largely as a result of this, a child under the age of five dies from a preventable waterborne illness about once every 10 seconds, a total of 2 million a year. And the importance of water is further underlined by the fact that water-related issues, ranging from the future availability of water supply to the potentially disastrous consequences of water-consuming agricultural practices, lie at the heart of many contemporary concerns about the fate of the planet.

Many of our worries about the impact of human-induced climate change, for example, are related to its effects on patterns of precipitation and sea-level rise. In some areas, it is the resulting lack of water that will have profound consequences; increasing droughts, for example, are forecast for many parts of Africa, with their inevitable impact on food production (and thus poverty in general). In other areas, the problems will be the result of too much water, for example the threatened disruption to the lives of millions living in countries with extensive low-lying coastal regions, such as Bangladesh.

Remember, too, that it is through the water supply that much of the less desirable consequences of modern food production techniques are experienced. There has been substantial progress in recent years in reducing the negative effects on both human health and wildlife of direct exposure to chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. But it has proven far more difficult to control the effects of low-level residues of these chemicals that inevitably enter the water supply. One of the complaints of the companies who were accused last year of not adequately eliminating pesticide residues from soft drinks manufactured in India (see Indian row over 'pesticides in soft drinks' claim) was that the vast quantities of chemicals used to achieve the Green Revolution made access to pesticide-free water supplies virtually impossible.

Finally one should not forget those situations in which well-intended efforts to provide adequate water supplies has itself caused major social problems. In some cases, as with the damming of rivers and the resultant upheaval of communities, the social disruption has been predictable, even if its full implications are rarely taken into account (and sometimes deliberately ignored). In others, the consequences have been less predictable, and often more dramatic. For example, large regions of South Asia appear to be facing the threat of arsenic poisoning already being suffered in epidemic proportions in Bangladesh as a result of taking water from deep wells in a bid to compensate for the increasing difficulty in obtaining adequate access to groundwater (see Asia's arsenic crisis deepens).

A global crisis

Put these facts together, and it is not difficult to conclude as is being highlighted by events planned to take place today, World Water Day (22 March) that the planet faces a serious water crisis. Furthermore, as is so widely experienced, it is the poorest, particularly in the developing world, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of this crisis.

Indeed this is now generally recognised within the international aid community. For example, one of the key targets included in the Millennium Development Goals is to "halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation". But it is one thing to put a target like this on an international wish list. Achieving it (as several recent sceptical reports have correctly pointed out about the development goals in general) is a challenge of a different order of magnitude.


'India's future? Men, Machines, but no water', a photograph by Indian science journalist Pallava Bagla. This photograph is part of an exhibition 'Drops of Life', organised by LEAD India from 22 to 25 March at the India Habitat Center, New Delhi.



What is already clear, however, is that these goals will not be reached — or even approached without the aid of science and technology. And this in turn will require a substantial increase in commitment to research on techniques to tackle what are widely seen as two of the largest components of the world's water crisis, the contamination of drinking water supplies with human faeces, and the large quantities of water used in agricultural practices.

It is not only money that is needed for this; equally important is building up the local capacity to handle water-related problems. As a recent report published by the International Foundation for Science (IFS), has emphasised, a significant amount of research should be conducted within developing countries, where the need for improved water conditions is perhaps the greatest.

Scientific infrastructure: an international collaboration

As the IFS report points out, however, the infrastructure for promoting research is not always well established in such countries. In addition to insufficient funding, researchers may lack properly functioning scientific equipment, access to literature, Internet availability, and opportunities to meet with other researchers and attend international conferences. Each of these needs to be properly addressed if local capacity to handle water-related issues is to be established.

The IFS itself has indicated its desire to tackle this problem, in particular by supporting young scientists to conduct state-of-the-art research while effectively building on local knowledge, local institutions, and local solutions for better water management. It has also identified a total of nine targeted research fields in three areas: water for livelihood (which includes safe drinking water, sustainable sanitation, pollution abatement, and water treatment); water for agriculture (covering rain-fed agriculture and rainfall harvesting, the use of low-quality irrigation water, and micro-irrigation technologies); and finally, the social and economic dimension (sustainable management of water resources and gender perspective on water).

Many organisations around the world, of course, are already engaged in work in this area, reflecting the fact firstly that the research needs are enormous, and secondly that there may be more than one approach to any particular problem. Some have adopted other priorities to those listed by the IFS. But it is clear that a broad-based strategy is needed. Furthermore, water management is one area where there is an obvious need to combine the best of what modern science has to offer with the insights and experience embedded in traditional knowledge systems (such as rain harvesting in the mountains of Latin America).

Furthermore it is encouraging to see the extent to which, in the field of water research, deliberate efforts are being made to integrate social, economic, and even ethical concerns into research strategies. These are highlighted in a statement from the Committee on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST), which points out that "the water crisis is not of absolute scarcity, rather of distribution and knowledge", and that as such, "questions of access and deprivation underlie most decisions related to water".


The Committee's proposals include identifying and disseminating 'environmental values' that should be a fundamental element in decision making with regard to water resources. At the same time, it argues that scientists and engineers should be encouraged to provide estimates of risks and local vulnerability to specific types of natural hazard or disasters, such as those arising from global warming, based on what it describes as "reliable data".

All this concern and commitment underlines the need for a high level of cooperation between all those engaged in carrying out research programmes. That includes the opportunity to explore the potential of public private partnerships, whose success in some parts of the developed world has yet to be reflected in developing countries. Individual organisations have already demonstrated a considerable amount of success in creating environmentally-sound and socially sustainable procedures for supporting both research into and management of water resources. But, as today's events graphically highlight, much more remains to be done.



World Water Day

COMEST statement

IFS report: Strengthening Capacity for Water Resources Research in Developing Countries