Water, our most basic need, is poised to be the most baffling challenge of the 21st century. It is being ignored wantonly at a time when more than 1 million people per year die from its scarcity and contamination. Children under age five account for at least 90 percent of water-related deaths. Meanwhile, economic productivity and educational opportunities are lost to illness, leaving millions more in an impoverished state even if they do survive their first five years of life.
Access to water is a human right. Yet that statement makes many people uncomfortable. Most in the developed world can hardly imagine water being anything more than a nominal expense that is easily drawn from a faucet. They think, "Surely it is a commodity to be bought and sold. It hardly costs anything, and it is even reusable, so what's the big deal?"
The big deal is that 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water at all. Most of those people live in Africa and Asia. But if you ask them whether water is a human right, they will laugh the notion off, with appreciation for your kind naïveté. But they will not discount water's importance. They will tell you that they walk up to 2 hours per day to fetch water that is often found in muddy puddles from rain runoff during the few brief months when rain does fall. This kind of water is rife with disease-causing organisms, which they drink unquestioningly.
The areas in which these grateful people live are suffering from soil erosion, decreasing tree coverage, and increasing malaria rates. The environment is deteriorating, and sanitation is simply horrific. Without adequate water for drinking and cooking, hygiene is sacrificed as well. They are forced to eat without washing their hands.
Poor hygiene, in its unrelenting ways, cycles back into the water sources. When people lack decent latrines and sanitation resources, fecal matter and other biohazards circulate back into the muddy puddles from which the people draw their daily water. Even more prevalent are water sources damaged by animal waste.