Quality Not Quantity: A Brief Survey of the Relationship between Water and Public Health

by Chrishane Cunningham on February 19, 2014

GEPHHi and welcome to HS 345’s Global Environmental Health Blog. My name is Chrishane and I like to think of myself as somewhat of an environmentalist. This all started for me when I moved to California (from Chicago). Up until then, I had never witnessed so much green and encountered so many people heavily invested in the environment in my life. People lived life differently in California, although they drove more (California is not very conducive to public transportation); among many things, they were more concerned with recycling, woodland conservation, vegetarianism, and water consumption/ conservation. The latter two captivated me the most. I left California a vegetarian water conservation/consumption enthusiast. With these blog posts I intend to shed some insight on public health issues we face in regards to water quality and quantity, and how to combat these challenges.



For most individuals in developed countries, safe drinking water is not one of our main concerns. Living in a developed country today gives us a guise that water is something we should not be concerned about. There is always drinkable water available at the tap, and we can leave it running for hours without fear of it stopping, and/or becoming something undrinkable. However, we have a false sense of security; approximately 15% of households in the United States receive their drinking water from unregulated sources i.e. private wells, local springs, and livestock water tanks. These unregulated sources have the potential to have ahuge impact on human health, and the impact is higher in developing societies. As public health advocates we need to have a clear picture of the challenges that effect water quality. Until we learn what challenges we face, we cannot come up with strategies to ensure or improve water quality.

One such challenge we face is degradation of water quality, which is unfortunately a major consequence of development. Generally speaking, there are two detrimental nemeses for water quality; the first being biological contaminants. Water is most commonly infected by pathogenic contaminants when it comes into contact with human or animal wastes. Water bourne diseases such as dysentery are major concerns, particularly in developing countries with poor healthcare systems. If someone, especially a child comes in contact with a water bourne illness like dysentery the likelihood of survival is minimum.

Poor sanitation not only has negative health impacts, but can also wreak major havoc on the economy. In Cambodia, correcting the devastating effects of inadequate sanitation can cost them 7.2 percent of their gross domestic product. In a developing country like Cambodia, that percentage could be detrimental to their economy. Investing in drinking water quality can be very economically beneficial; it can lead to eventual profits of 5 to 60 times the initial cost. Thus, investing in water quality could not only increase profits, but can also prevent the deaths of approximately 2.2 million children per year.

Another hindering force in providing adequate water systems in developing countries is land-based pollution. While agriculture provides us with the food we need to survive, it also has a massive negative impact on not only water quality but water quantity.  These negative impacts include: sediment bourne contaminants from siltation and erosion, manure, pesticides, and chemical fertilisers. The runoff from plant and livestock agriculture leads to many problems not only for humans but also water ecosystems. For example, the runoff from fertilisers cause undue algal blooms because of excess nitrogen which deprive the water of oxygen. Fish underneath the algal blooms cannot survive due to unusually low oxygen levels.  As they die, the fish decompose and continue to deplete the oxygen levels in the water consequently making unusable and unsanitary water sources.

Biological and agricultural contaminants pose a serious threat to the quality of water. Water is already running scarce and it is important that we begin to manage our water supplies and cut down on our water consumption to preserve planet earth for all of its inhabitants. Luckily, we have been able to identify the major threats towards water quality. Unfortunately however, we live in a world that is constantly developing and with further development comes more threats towards humans and the environment. In the next blog post we can discuss how to combat these current threats and how to become aware of new ones.



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