Linking Freshwater Conservation and Human Health

This World Water Day, CI is participating in a series of educational events sponsored by the World Water Day coalition, emphasizing the need for more integrated health and conservation initiatives. CI’s Janet Edmond explains why this is so important.

A girl plays in a river in Guyana. Despite recent progress toward expanding global access to clean fresh water, almost 800 million people worldwide still lack access to clean water. (© Pete Oxford/ iLCP)

During the late 1990s, I served in the Peace Corps in the rugged Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where my mud hut had no running water and only a rudimentary latrine. Every morning, I began the day by fetching three to four gallons of water from the stone well down the hill. While this morning ritual could turn into a lively, impromptu social gathering with all the neighboring women and girls charged with the same task, I couldn’t help but wonder how much their lives would be improved if they had a water storage or pump system to bring water directly into their homes.

Every year on March 22, World Water Day focuses attention on the vital importance of fresh water to our everyday survival, from drinking to cooking, washing and cleaning to sanitation and hygiene. Healthy freshwater ecosystems supply the natural infrastructure that underpins sustainable access to water for these needs; they also provide flood control, food and numerous other services on which millions of people depend. According to a 1997 study in the journal Nature, the value of these services could be as much as $80 trillion per year.

By cutting in half the number of people without access to safe drinking water, the world recently met one of its Millennium Development Goal targets several years ahead of the 2015 deadline. Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people gained access to an improved source of drinking water.

These gains are impressive, but regional disparities persist, with almost 800 million people worldwide still lacking access to clean water. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 4 out of 10 people lack access to safe drinking water. And while access to sanitation services is improving in all regions of the world, in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, less than half the population has access to adequate sanitation. As a result, child mortality rates remain high, with more than 3,000 children dying from diarrhea every day.

Too often, conservation and development groups work in parallel on related issues, missing opportunities to leverage their resources and collaborate. Depending on how they are designed and implemented, water supply and sanitation projects can either degrade or help protect freshwater ecosystems. That’s where we come in.

CI is taking a fresh approach to freshwater conservation by linking with development groups to promote Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) efforts combined with watershed and environmental management. Sustainable WASH projects play a great role in both improving the lives of people and in supporting the conservation of freshwater-dependent species.

Recognizing that nature will play a significant role in helping the remaining 11 percent of the world to achieve access to safe water, CI is working with development groups such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and World Vision to bring integrated initiatives to life. For example, in Madagascar CRS and CI are combining WASH activities with freshwater conservation education efforts and watershed management.

At the global level, we hope to leverage these efforts into broader demonstration projects and wider advocacy efforts to conserve freshwater ecosystems and improve the health and well-being of communities which depend on them the most.

Janet Edmond is the director of the Population Environment program within CI’s Health Security initiative.


  1. Kathleen Zuniga says

    It’s mind blowing that there is still a problem in many countries concerning fresh water. Something as simple as water, that is often taken for granted in 1st world countries is an actual health issue in many areas. In places like the United States, fresh water is wasted on a daily basis. This is sickening seeing that there are children dying to due famine received through water. World Water Day is a great way to spread awareness about this issue. It’s great to see so many coalitions working to change this.

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