When a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi earlier this year arrived at her hotel, and wanted to turn on the water tap, she encountered the following warning: “Do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.”
This incident, like many others (“peach juice…oh wait, that’s water,” tweeted another journalist in Russia for the Olympics), was mostly laughed off in the West, where an ironic hashtag—#SochiProblems—began making the rounds.
But when it comes to water, the Sochi episode was no glitch. More than ten million Russians lack access to quality drinking water. Sixty percent of the country’s population drinks water from contaminated wells, mostly in rural, backwater regions. As a New York Times report from Moscow a few years ago concluded, in Russia “the rich buy bottled water, and the rest boil, hold their noses and drink.”
Despite these stories, Russia’s case is hardly the most alarming among the former Soviet states, let alone most of the developing world. The reality is that almost one billion people in the world—nearly one in seven—do not have access to improved water sources and more than three million people die every year from waterborne diseases. Lack of access to safe water has become such a global plight, in fact, that it is responsible for more deaths around the world than war.
Unless there is a drastic overhaul of current trends, experts predict the global demand for water will exceed supply by more than fifty percent by 2025. And while that trajectory is certainly daunting, several policy changes and technological advances are working in tandem to help mitigate a disaster—and improve the lives of billions.
“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity,” wrote the United Nations’ committee on economic, social, and cultural rights in 2010. “It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”
Part of a long-term policy solution would likely involve investment in groundwater digging.
Around the world, there is currently 60 times as much fresh water stored underground as there is in lakes and rivers above ground. Not to mention that groundwater has been shown to be more resilient to droughts and floods than water drawn from rivers or ponds—a valuable trait in today’s world of increasingly volatile climate patterns.
Currently, the high investment associated with drilling for water, and the technical difficulty in siting locations large enough to serve the population in need, limit the tapping of the groundwater. Nor is groundwater “a fail-safe resource, either, when it comes to providing clean water, according to a report by the charity Water Project.” There is still risk of contamination in wells and of high concentration of metal in the groundwater itself.” Nonetheless, Water Project concluded that “groundwater is the best resource to tap to provide clean water to the majority of areas in Africa, especially rural Africa.”
Meanwhile, on the technological front, there have been positive developments as companies are forging ahead with groundbreaking, innovative ways to harness and recycle waste water in order to make it clean, safe, and drinkable. The humanitarian group WaterIsLife has developed a “water filter straw”—a portable water purifier that can be used in any water source. Likewise, LifeStraw, produced by the Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, resembles a large drinking straw that can filter about a thousand liters, enough to keep a person hydrated for a year. Similarly, the technology of the SlingShot offers a portable recyclable solution: a personal device that boils, vaporizes, and re-condenses any kind of wastewater, no matter how polluted, to make pure, distilled water.
Some local solutions are also making a difference—though certainly a lot more must still be done. In the Maldives, where groundwater has become increasingly contaminated by surrounding seawater, the national water company partnered with Hitachi to build a desalination plant. With a bottling facility next door, the plant has extended the water supply of the island nation’s capital city, which sits on a riverless and lakeless island, where the population of 105,000 has historically primarily relied on groundwater.
And in Russia, where the government often spins off regional waterworks to private operators, a pilot program run by the World Bank funded a treatment plant that has cut in half the amount of raw sewage flowing from the city of St. Petersburg into the Baltic Sea.
For cities around the world, the eventual home of 70 percent of the world’s population, failing to confront this predicament would be a grave mistake. Parallel processes of population growth and urbanization are rising at such an accelerated pace that the cities of tomorrow will continue to see an ever-growing strain on their natural resources—especially on their freshwater. Indeed, as more than a billion urban dwellers gained access to improved drinking water over the last two decades, the growth of the urban population outpaced the progress by 37 million people, according to UN statistics.
Progress moves along, for the moment slightly slower than population growth, but with a concerted effort it can happen. “Clean water is no longer a free gift of nature,” David Soll writes in his 2013 book, Empire of Water. It is “a shared resource that can be preserved only through judicious investments and active engagement.”
Since Sochi in 2012, the next Winter Olympics is slated to take place in Seoul. In recent years, the OECD has praised South Korea for implementing strict efficiency codes and strategies to improve and monitor water quality and pollution standards. These proactive policies have had such drastic impact that close to 100 percent of South Korea’s population now has sustainable access to improved water sources.
Russia—and the rest of the world—can take note.