Water issues aren't going to evaporate

August 11, 2010

The editors are pleased to present our seventh annual White Paper on green buildings; this one focuses on “water performance.” We call your attention to the Action Plan, which offers specific steps Building Teams and others can take to address water-related issues.

Regrettably, we were not able to discuss a number of truly important water-related concerns; to name just one, the presence of pharmaceutical waste in our water supplies. A 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey of 139 streams in 30 states found human and veterinary drugs, hormones, and other substances in 80% of the streams (http://toxics.usgs.gov/pubs/FS-027-02/). How these waste drugs are distorting the genetic makeup of fish and other wildlife in and around the nation's waterways is a subject that is almost too creepy to think about.

Nor, we regret, did we cover water in the Third World, where more than a billion people lack access to the minimal water standard set by the World Health Organization: 20 liters (about five gallons) of water per person a day, within a half-mile or so of their homes.

We didn't get into the fact that the hundreds of millions of women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have to carry as much as 20 kg (44 pounds) of water each day, often trekking long distances in the heat to do so. Of course, many of these women are really just girls, and they're probably carrying the equivalent of half their weight. So, try this: If you're a 160-pound male, rig up 80 pounds of water (about 10 gallon jugs) on your back and carry that load a half mile or so. See if that keeps you in shape.

Nor did we mention that children who live in parts of the world with unconscionably below-standard water and sanitation service die at 20 times the rate of those who live in countries with merely adequate water and sewer services.

We left out any discussion of water-borne diseases like onchocerciasis (river blindness), which afflicts 18 million in Africa (and can be treated with a couple of pills a year); or schistosomiasis, in which parasitic worms bore under the victim's skin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say this dreadful condition can be treated with a few pills. Why, then, are 200 million people in Africa, Asia, and South America still suffering from it?

Seven years ago, the United Nations Economic and Social Council explicitly recognized access to clean water as a fundamental human right and established the WHO standard (20 liters a day per person within one kilometer) as the baseline. But with the impact of climate change and world population growth, 2.7 billion could face severe water shortages by 2025. How can we in good conscience allow this to happen?—Robert Cassidy


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