Water Quality and Human Rights: How Does the Relationship Translate into an Environmental Responsibility?

Water Quality and Human Rights: How Does the Relationship Translate into an Environmental Responsibility?

(Photo by Vicki Francis/Department for International Development)

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663 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water, the most essential resource for sustaining any and all forms of life. A resident of an urban Los Angeles neighborhood requires the same amount of water as does one of a rural community in Yemen, and it is a necessary work in progress to provide water of high quality and equal quantity to everyone, everywhere.

How is our earth expected to function properly when one out of every 10 of its inhabitants do not have a reliable source of clean water?

On July 28, 2010 the United Nations General Assembly officially recognized the human right to water and sanitation, establishing the claim to a sufficient, safe, acceptable, accessible, and affordable water supply. Independent from geographical location, the acknowledgement of this human right is meant to assure the abundance and safety of water quality adhering to standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Our rights as humans are inherently intertwined with our responsibility to the environment. As members of a united global community, there is an important emphasis on maintaining a safe natural world to allow for a prosperous population. Food production, the state of the international economy, and jobs growth all rely on a clean environment – which includes high-quality, nonpolluted water to function.

Look at the necessity for an adequate global food supply, for instance. Agricultural food sources, such as crops and livestock, require 70% of the world’s water. With a predicted 60% increase in food demand by 2050, as well as a growing population and an escalating desire for water-heavy produce like meat and dairy, there are simply not enough resources available to filter through all of the polluted water sources.

Between 2009 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase by about 2.3 billion people. Within these 41 years, urban populations are likely to increase by 2.9 billion people collectively, expecting a mix of new people as well as those currently living in rural areas anticipated to move.

Accompanying the explosion of city dwellers is a naturally high concentration of new buildings, transportation systems, and sources of waste. According to the EPA, urban waters are generally polluted with “industrial discharges, mobile courses, residential and commercial wastewater, trash and polluted stormwater runoff.”

In an effort to attack the problem before it becomes an intense disaster, there are institutions in place to specifically research and fix the pollution in urban waters. Initiatives at the United Nations University and the Department of Ecology in Washington State, along with multiple organizations in other locations, focus on urban water quality. The significant efforts of these institutions are noticed on an international scale; however, there must be more focus in the immediate future by individuals and other organizations.

In 1990, the WHO and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) launched the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) to manage international progress in providing access to clean water and sanitation.

The JMP defines access to drinking water as sustaining a reliable source that is less than one kilometer (about two-thirds of a mile) away from the place of use, indicating that it must be the vicinity of the household, workplace, or educational institution. The improved water source must be able to provide each member of the household with at least 20 liters (around a quarter of a gallon) on a regular basis for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene.

One fourth of a gallon is equivalent to four cups of water. While many of us have more than four cups of water at a single meal, approximately 3.5 million people die each year due to a lack of adequate amounts of water, sanitation and hygiene.

We need a solution. Despite the efforts of the existing institutions, there is always more that we can do, as individuals and with the help of the international community. Reversing climate change is key, because the current high temperatures are impacting water quality by shifting the patterns of rainfall, snowmelt, and river flows. Making an effort to reduce greenhouse gasses will help decrease the global temperature.

Additionally, urban investments in water treatment, sustainable industrial production, and energy-efficient agriculture will stimulate a change.

So, you may ask – what can you do to make a difference? The first necessary step is to remain educated about the issue, and to spread your acquired knowledge to others who may not know of the existing problem. With that information, making a change in local communities, as well as big cities, can improve water quality and quantity around the world.

The effort on an individual basis can range from little to extreme determination, but the most important piece to remember is that there needs to be at least some attempt. Whether motivated by the desire to maintain a clean and safe environment or the consideration for human rights, high quality water must be abundant now and in the future for the population to thrive.


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