The catastrophic damage caused by the momentous floods in Pakistan that have covered over one-third of the country’s landmass has also highlighted a widespread phenomenon, lack of potable water for so much of the country’s rural population. With water tankers now being deployed to so many flooded areas, how can there be a more permanent solution to safe access to water worldwide? There is one, but government’s aren’t interested in it.
The UN estimates that women and children lose 200 million hours per day to the long, arduous trek to find water in developing nations. How do events caused by climate change or mass human movements like pilgrimage exacerbate this issue? Currently, 25 million Shi’a Muslims are preparing to undertake their pilgrimage towards Karbala in southern Iraq as part of the commemoration of the Arba’een, marking the fortieth day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, which this year falls in mid-September. This yearly 50-mile trek leads to a significant spike in the use of plastic bottles to serve cool, fresh water to the pilgrims. By introducing strategically placed desalination plants, this plastic-fuelled pollution can be stopped.
Even when the water can be accessed, it has dire hygiene levels or is transported in pollutant materials, such as single-use plastic. The optimum solution is for governments to introduce more solar-powered desalination plants to bolster the fresh-water supply closer to homes and communities across struggling regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
However, thus far, the loud-and-clear answer to this global crisis seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears. One cannot help but wonder if this has anything to do with the colossal profits garnered from the sale of plastic bottles and whether financial gain is being prioritised over people’s lives. Where water distribution facilities exist, so many of them are powered by diesel generators contributing to the causes of climate change that exacerbates the need to do more to help communities access safe water.
The water shortage crisis is reaching a tipping point, and the recent spate of droughts across the Western world has reminded many that water is not a luxury. Around one in ten people in India do not have access to clean water near their homes. In sub-Saharan Africa, 37% of rural areas are more than a half an hour walk away from high-quality water sources.
The onus often falls on women and children to make this relentless daily trip. Regularly carrying a water carrier on one’s head can lead to severe musculoskeletal disorders, including osteoporosis and chronic neck and back pain. Tragically, this significantly increases the chances of childbirth complications. In India, women collectively spend around 150 million work days fetching water, which seriously hampers their opportunities for career progression. Often children, particularly girls, also make the arduous trek to fetch water, which leads to them missing vital hours of school, reducing their chances of advancing into higher education. Not being able to collect water is not an option for people who do not have instant access, which makes them reliant on others fetching it for them. People are more likely to fall ill with waterborne diseases, meaning they need more water to recover but are less able to fetch it.
Despite the effort that is required to obtain it, the quality of water these women and children return home with is often extremely low. The longer the time spent transporting and storing the water, the greater the likelihood of fecal contamination. More than 300,000 children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoeal diseases as a result of either poor sanitation, poor hygiene or unsafe drinking water.
In Tanzania, 57% of pregnant women have anemia, which can be caused by malnutrition due to a lack of water for irrigation. This again leads to needless rises in maternal mortalities and poor birth outcomes. Tanzania is home to vast tracts of fertile land, yet they still suffer from water shortages and manpower lost to the daily grind of fetching water. This results from the one-two sucker punch delivered by poverty and flawed government policies that rely on imports.
The predominant solution currently being offered is the widespread distribution of plastic water bottles to those who can afford this. This is destroying the environment and rapidly increasing the amount of plastic in our oceans. The High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, headed by government leaders from fourteen countries, underlines that a crucial means of reducing ocean pollution is to enhance local systems providing safe food and water. If water access is improved, then the need for plastic bottles will be reduced.
It is somewhat unsurprising that in these affected areas, the lucrative five-star hotels and tourism spots still manage to gain a water supply while surrounding regions continue to struggle. In places such as Bali, Goa and Zanzibar, the tourism industry uses 16 times as much water as locals.
Some argue that being concerned about climate change is a privilege not afforded to families desperately trying to seek water in developing countries. They suggest that if plastic bottles are helping these people to survive, then the world can wait. This is an understandable mentality. But why are we framing this as a trade-off? We do not have to choose between saving the planet and saving families without water when we have a solution that tackles both.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
The answer is for governments to introduce more solar-powered desalination plants into these regions. These offer highly eco-friendly means of producing fresh water and can be efficiently built in various remote locations. Jordan’s famously drought-riddled desert kingdom has committed to building a Red Sea desalination plant within the next five years, and more governments must follow suit.
Desalination plants are also on the rise in arid and drought-hit regions of California. The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant is North America’s largest transformer of salt water into fresh water, creating 50 million gallons of water for municipal users daily. Numerous more plants are planned across the state.
Governments must start placing the needs of these suffering families ahead of the profits that are on offer from the single-use plastic bottles and tourism industries. Desalination plants powered by clean energy are the solution, and it is time for governments to invest in long-term sustainable development by installing more of these plants. It will save lives and open up a world of possibilities to women and daughters who have so far had their visions drowned in the walk for water.
Mukhtar Karim is CEO of humanitarian charity Lady Fatemah Trust. He has contributed to Reuters, Newsweek The Independent and City AM.