Responding to Calamity, Asian disaster points to peril – and promise – of water

Peter H. Gleick
Wednesday, January 5, 2005

The tragedy that has unfolded over the past week in Asia reminds us of the power of water to both give life and take it away. As the death toll rises from the earthquake and devastating tsunami, efforts to provide all manner of aid are picking up speed and urgency.

Among the most urgent needs are clean water and adequate sanitation. Without basic water services, outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and other water-related diseases are inevitable and will increase the death toll. Aid agencies, governments, corporations and individuals are rushing bottled water, filters and chemical purification systems to help with these short-term urgencies. This is as it should be, and the outpouring of help from the Bay Area and around the world is wonderful evidence of the richness of our hearts and pocketbooks.

But hidden behind the current disaster is a greater tragedy too often ignored by governments and the world community: According to the World Health Organization, billions of people in the developing world lack safe water and sanitation systems and, as a result, 5,000 to 10,000 people, mostly children, die every day from preventable water-related diseases. These deaths are not the result of natural disasters, but of government failure, inadequate infrastructure and insufficient international aid.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of water issues, international economic support for water projects of all kinds is paltry. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that assistance for water supply and sanitation from industrialised nations and major international financial institutions is only around $3 billion a year — and those people most in need receive the least amount of aid. In 2003, total assistance provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development to all of Africa and Asia for water and sanitation was about $25 million — about one- tenth the cost of a single F-22 fighter plane. To put this in perspective, it’s worth noting that Americans spend nearly $10 billion annually on bottled water, according to industry reports.

A few years ago, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals to address poverty worldwide. Included are specific targets for access to basic water services. By 2015, governments and aid organizations hope to cut the number of people without access to basic water services in half. Although this is a laudable goal, it isn’t enough — over the next two decades, the Pacific Institute estimates that as many as 32 million people, and perhaps twice that many, will die from preventable water-related diseases, even if we meet the U.N. targets.

Sadly, despite growing consensus that more must be done to improve access to water, practical actions and commitments to provide universal coverage continue to be inadequate. The price for failing to reach these goals will be paid in lost opportunities, sickness and death. This is morally unacceptable in a world that values equity and decency, and it also presents risks to our economy and national security. Around the world, from India to Bolivia to the Middle East to China, tensions over access to scarce water resources are sparking violence and conflicts, and restrictions on local uses of water are threatening commercial and industrial production.

Despite the grim prognosis, it doesn’t have to be this way. Communities in developing countries have a wide range of options to provide safe and reliable water to their residents. But sometimes they need help with things we have in abundance: information, education, technology and financial assistance in the form of loans, credit or grants.

The terrible catastrophe in Asia is a stark reminder of the tremendous power of water to wreak havoc and the critical role that clean water plays in sustaining life. We must take a leading role in providing short-term aid to the millions of survivors of the current disaster. But we must not stop at that. Only by helping communities build permanent, sustainable water systems can we hope to stem the daily disasters we don’t read about or see.

Peter H. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland ( and lead author of the biennial water report “The World’s Water” (Island Press, 2004).